My concern isn’t that she wouldn’t win. I think she would have a very good chance of winning. My fear is that she wouldn’t be a very good president. I also have a more general consideration. Let me start with it.
Liberals Believe in Government
Liberals believe that our representatives should be professionals. It’s the conservatives who believe that you can grab any man (and I do mean man) off the street and make him president. Because governing is easy. All you have to do is go to Washington (or Sacramento, or wherever) and vote what you believe in. What could be easier?!
But liberals don’t think that. They know that governing isn’t just about having opinions. They understand that if you want to get anything done, you need to work at it. That’s why President Obama got a lot done and Trump came very close to getting nothing done his first year, and why he will likely get little done the rest of his term.
Arnold Schwarzenegger Had No Experience — And It Showed
But the main thing is that Oprah (or Tom Hanks) running for President is not what we Democrats do. We value government enough to want a president who is prepared for it.
My favorite example of this has always been Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike a lot of people, I know that Schwarzenegger is a smart guy. And when he became governor of California, he had a lot of ideas. He was no Donald Trump. He worked hard to learn the job. But being governor of California is really not something that can be learned in 4 years. So he accomplished very little, despite really trying.
When Schwarzenegger came up for re-election, his approval rating was in the high-20s. So the Republicans came up with someone else: Meg Whitman, who also had no experience. It wasn’t just that the GOP figured she could glide into office on her billions of dollars. Again: Republicans don’t think political experience matters. Had she won, she would have been as bad or worse than Schwarzenegger.
Jerry Brown to the Rescue
Of course, despite a mind-numbing number of television and internet ads, Whitman lost by 13 percentage points to Jerry Brown. He’s an interesting guy. He has spent his whole life in politics. He loves it and, more important, he understands it. After being a two-term governor, he went on to be quite a good mayor of Oakland — a small city in California. Most politicians wouldn’t do that. But he did because he loves politics.
And when he became governor, he was really good. He knew how the system worked. He knew the people. In short, he knew how to get things done — one thing most Republicans don’t care about at all.
Oprah for President?!
Now if Oprah Winfrey were going to run as a Republican, I would say, “Go for it!” She’s a television celebrity. She has a lot of money, which means she knows a lot of other people with money who will set-up super-PACs and all that. She wouldn’t need to know anything. She’d just have to be willing to sign the new tax cuts for the rich. So she’s a perfect Republican candidate except for:
She’s a woman
She has a mind of her own.
But other than that, she would be great. That is to say, that Oprah would have a good chance of winning.
Oprah Has No Experience
Some might complain that Oprah does have experience because of her philanthropy and all the causes she’s been involved with. But our old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger had the same experience — in some ways better because he worked directly with presidents and other high-ranking government officials. (Maybe Oprah has too; I am no expert on her.)
But none of this is the same as being an elected official. It’s a skill. People learn it. The more they do it, the better they get.
Remember when Michael Jordan decided to become a baseball player? He managed to play on an AA team, which is impressive. But he was never going to make it to the majors, even though he was perhaps the greatest person to play a related game.
Even Obama made some serious errors his first two years in office, despite having lots of experience and being a genius in that field. I know it would be worse for Oprah.
On the plus side, I know that unlike Trump and like Obama, Oprah would take the job seriously. So Oprah becoming president would surround herself with actual experts and do at least a competent job as president.
On the negative side, I’m certain that she wouldn’t do a fantastic job as president. I would be particularly concerned with her surrounding herself with a bunch of Gates Foundation types. All those people thinking that Hillary Clinton was a neoliberal would start thinking of her as a socialist. That’s not a certainty, but smart inexperienced people tend to be impressed with those kinds of thinkers, even though there is really nothing more (and usually much less) backing up their ideas than those of more egalitarian thinkers.
This Is Not Who We Are
But the main thing is that Oprah (or Tom Hanks) running for President is not what we Democrats do. We value government enough to want a president who is prepared for it.
That means we look at people like Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. This isn’t just about the individual. This is about our ideals.
By all accounts, Oprah Winfrey is a fine person. And if she became the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, I would vote for her. But she shouldn’t be our nominee for the reasons I’ve discussed. And I believe that Oprah Winfrey would agree.
I used to write a lot about Ezra Klein. Since he started Vox.com, I haven’t so much. It’s probably because he writes more simple opinion pieces and less about actual stuff. I still enjoy reading him. And during the 2016 election, he was one of the few mainstream commentators who seemed to understand that Trump had a real shot at winning and that it was going to be a whole lot worse than people expected.
It’s amazing to think, but OnTheIssues (a website I use quite a lot) had Trump scored as a moderate during the election. Overall, he was seen as slightly more conservative than Ford. But on economic issues, he was more liberal than Ford, George W Bush, and Reagan. As Digby noted, “This proves that these ideological compasses are completely useless.” She was also sounding the alarm about Trump, but she’s not really a mainstream commentator.
It was hard for anyone not to see that Trump was going to be a tyrant. But people in the mainstream media usually miss things that are obvious. Most of them missed that the Iraq War was nothing but a war of choice that Bush was simply going to do regardless of what happens. So I give Ezra Klein a lot of credit for sounding the alarm about Trump early and fiercely. (See the video: Watch: This election isn’t just Democrat vs. Republican. It’s normal vs. abnormal.)
The Bad Side of Ezra Klein
But my first viral article (in those days meaning only that I got about a thousand readers) was called “Ezra Klein Gets ‘Serious’.” This was from his days at The Washington Post. And indeed, most of my writing about him is from this period. What follows is what I wrote back in July 2012:
Ezra Klein has an interesting article about the jobs plans of Obama and Romney. But as usual, he is maddeningly “even handed” in a case that is not even.
Romney’s Jobs Plan
He claims that each have four main items. First, he gives Romney’s:
Expand domestic energy production
Trade agreements with Latin America
Trade policies with China
Cut corporate taxes.
Klein’s Analysis of Romney’s Jobs Plan Is a Joke
Klein points out that all of these are long-term plans that will not help the economy anytime soon. But he claims they are all good ideas. They aren’t. Expanding energy production is a bad idea that will create very few jobs; NAFTA has not worked out as advertised (except for the rich) so why would we think it would be great to expand it (most Washington columnists have a religious faith in “free trade”); and cutting the corporate tax rate is going to do nothing for an economy that lacks demand. But it will increase inequality!
Working out the problems with China is a big deal. China keeps its currency value set too low [At that time. -FM 6 Jan 2018], and as a result, American products are unfairly expensive when sold in China. The Obama administration has gone head to head with China many times over the last three and a half years. But the problems remain. Romney has never explained what he’s going to do that is so different. Instead, he complains that Obama has been soft. Romney’s swagger on this issue — along with his total lack of backbone when standing up to his own party — inspires absolutely no confidence.
Obama’s Jobs Plan
So I don’t understand where Ezra Klein is coming from when he claims that these are all good ideas. I think he’s just trying to look Serious. This is especially true when you look at Obama’s four items:
Increase infrastructure investment
Hire more state and local workers
Double payroll tax cut
Add tax cuts for businesses that hire
Klein’s Analysis of Obama’s Jobs Plan Is Reasonable Out of Context
These are all good ideas, as Klein says. And Klein grants that the first two items would help the economy right away. But he is unwilling to come right out and say what his own analysis shows: Romney’s jobs program is a sham and Obama’s is not. Klein also doesn’t mention that Romney’s items (except China) are all traditional Republican wishes that they want regardless of what’s happening in the economy. So Romney isn’t even presenting a jobs plan but rather just an “economic” plan by the Republican playbook.
Klein goes on to look at how the two plans deal with the budget deficit. He points out that Obama says explicitly how he will pay for his plan and that Romney hasn’t. I don’t particularly care about the deficit right now, but Klein as the Very Serious Commentator he is, cares very much. And yet, he presents the two plans — Obama pays for his and Romney says someday he’ll explain how he will pay for his — as equivalent.
Ezra Klein’s False Equivalence
The article finishes off discussing how the two plans are compatible. This causes Klein to see the two budgets as indicative of the ideologies of the two candidates. He says, “Obama has a plan for creating jobs now.” That is the definition of a jobs plan. He then says, “Romney has a plan for changing the regulatory, budgetary and tax environment in which jobs are created later.” While this may be true, the creation of jobs is notUpdate (8 July 2012 5:21 pm)
Crooks and Liars linked to this post this morning in Mike’s Blog Round Up. I was shocked, but pleased. Peter G, a commenter over there wrote, “Frankly Curious ably demonstrates [w]hy Ezra Klein is about ten times as smart as he is.” I concede the point! The boy is scary smart. Unfortunately, he is also often wrong.
Ezra Klein’s 22 Maps and Charts That Will Not Surprise You
Here’s another article where I was kind of mean to the little wunderkind. As regular readers know, I’m a sucker for these kind of click-bait headlines. Few things surprise me. There are few things I don’t know that would be of interest to normal people. So I doubted I would be surprised by many of Ezra Klein’s 22 graphs. And I was right. I wrote this back in Sep 2014:
I hate articles with titles like, 22 Maps and Charts That Will Surprise You. It even goes along with the stupid picture on the left of the man who is, “Shocked — shocked to find that hyperbole is going on in this article!”
It isn’t just that like all Americans, I love lists. “Top 22 Articles About Some Top 22 Things.” And the number one article in that article? That article, of course! That is bad enough. But I hate the challenge. It is my Achilles’ heel. The website is using my intellectual arrogance against me. And this one was coming not only from Vox, a website run be equally intellectually arrogant people, but the top snob himself: Ezra Klein. How could I not click to match knowledge with the Nerd King himself?
Ezra Klein Surprise #1: Most people Live in India and China
And what was the first “surprising” map? Only this one that was a big deal on Reddit a year and a half ago:
Map created by reddit user valeriepieris.
I will admit, this is an interesting map. But it is also a bit deceptive because it uses the Winkel tripel projection, which makes that area look smaller than it should. Although the map does look surprising, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that half of all the people on the earth living in India, China, and Indonesia.
Ezra Klein Surprise #2: Stuff I’ve Seen Before
Some of the maps and charts I had seen in their exact form before, such as “Assault Deaths in America Are Falling.” This goes along with the often noted fact that crime is way down in the United States. Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop politicians from demagoguing the issue and it doesn’t stop us from locking up the most people in the history of humanity — most of them for things that most people at most times wouldn’t even understand as crimes. See Ceremonial Chemistry: The Ritual Persecution of Drugs, Addicts, and Pushers.
The Metric System
I also knew, “Liberia, Myanmar, and the United States Are the Only Countries That don’t Use the Metric System.” But I only learned that recently. Just the same, it isn’t exactly true. Pretty much the United States is metric. It is just that we’ve gone out of our way to convert metric measurements into imperial units for the people. So the odometer on your car is measuring kilometers, but the car converts it to miles for you. This is done because if there is one thing that all Americans agree on it is that every other American is an idiot who can’t manage even the smallest amount of change.
But there were a number of graphs I hadn’t seen before. And I was surprised in the same way that I’m surprised at exactly what I see if I open up a friend’s cupboard. There is a nice map that shows the comparable size of Africa, but it is not true that it is bigger than I think. I know how big it is! There is a very fun map that fills in the name of a country for each American state of the same size. I actually was surprised in one part of this map, but in the opposite way it was meant: Ghana is the same size as Utah. I actually thought that Ghana was a lot smaller than that. (I was fascinated with Ghana in my middle school years, and I sometimes think of immegrating there.) And then there is the map of Antarctica’s wacky time zones. Well, yeah. Because it’s on the pole. And because time zones are madness!
Really Uninteresting Stuff
There were, of course, charts that I absolutely didn’t care about. Did you know that “Snapchat Is More Popular Than Twitter Among Millenials”?! I only know what Snapchat is because the two kids who created it were on The Colbert Report. And what it shows is that with enough money for marketing, even a totally useless application can become super popular. There’s one of those warped maps to show how rich different countries are, and you will not be shocked. Similarly, there is a listing of the richest person in each state. Guess who’s the richest person in Washington? Yawn.
One map didn’t exactly shock me, but it impressed me, “The British Have Invaded Almost Every Country on Earth.” I knew they were busy little beavers, but I didn’t quite realize just how thorough they had been. What’s even more impressive is that the map is based upon Stuart Laycock’s book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, which I wrote about, Luxembourg: You’re Next. But in my defense, I write about a lot of stuff and forget about it rather quickly most of the time. Anyway, here is the map that might surprise you, although not to the extent of the guy in the picture above. No wonder so many Scots wanted out!
Right before I wrote that last article, I wrote about the crush that Ezra Klein had on Paul Ryan. That was in Jul 2014. Thankfully, it’s over. But Klein, like most mainstream journalists, just loved Paul Ryan because he was something that solved a very big problem for them. You see, most journalists are terrified of not being “objective.” So if it really is true that the Republican Party is just an authoritarian might-makes-right party, they can’t help but publish that. Thus, they aren’t “objective,” because in their minds, objectivity means that both political parties in a two party system are just as bad.
Paul Krugman on Paul Ryan
Ryan fixed that problem because he pretended to be a numbers guy who was just looking at the facts. He wasn’t, of course. As Paul Krugman noted from the beginning, he was a flimflam man. Back in 2010, when Ezra Klein was still saying nice things about Paul Ryan, Paul Krugman was saying this:
One depressing aspect of American politics is the susceptibility of the political and media establishment to charlatans. You might have thought, given past experience, that DC insiders would be on their guard against conservatives with grandiose plans. But no: as long as someone on the right claims to have bold new proposals, he’s hailed as an innovative thinker. And nobody checks his arithmetic.
Which brings me to the innovative thinker du jour: Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Mr Ryan has become the Republican Party’s poster child for new ideas thanks to his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” a plan for a major overhaul of federal spending and taxes. News media coverage has been overwhelmingly favorable; on Monday, The Washington Post put a glowing profile of Mr Ryan on its front page, portraying him as the GOP’s fiscal conscience. He’s often described with phrases like “intellectually audacious.”
But it’s the audacity of dopes. Mr Ryan isn’t offering fresh food for thought; he’s serving up leftovers from the 1990s, drenched in flimflam sauce.
So why have so many in Washington, especially in the news media, been taken in by this flimflam? It’s not just inability to do the math, although that’s part of it. There’s also the unwillingness of self-styled centrists to face up to the realities of the modern Republican Party; they want to pretend, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, that there are still people in the GOP making sense. And last but not least, there’s deference to power — the GOP is a resurgent political force, so one mustn’t point out that its intellectual heroes have no clothes.
But they don’t. The Ryan plan is a fraud that makes no useful contribution to the debate over America’s fiscal future.
Read Krugman’s whole article, I’ve left out the best parts. But in Jul 2014, this is what Ezra Klein was up to:
For those of you who are sane and don’t pay close attention to this nonsense, “Halbig” is the court case Halbig v Burwell, where conservatives are trying to gut Obamacare by saying that people in states that didn’t create their own exchanges can’t get subsidies to buy insurance. It is, frankly, one of the most vile arguments I’ve ever heard in American politics. But I know it is not going to stand, as I discussed a couple of days ago, Courts Have Good News for Obamacare.
Klein’s response was simply, “The Supreme Court simply isn’t going to rip insurance from tens of millions of people in order to teach Congress a lesson about grammar.” Now I understand that this does sound a little naive. But I’m right with him. He goes into some depth on the issue. The fact is that the Supreme Court isn’t just some deliberative body that exists in a vacuum. Even the freaks on the court like Samuel Alito know that they can only go so far. (Just look at his Hobby Lobby decision and how fine-tuned it was.) When Roberts originally upheld Obamacare, he specifically said that the Court had a duty try to see things from the administration’s perspective. And if he decided against the law now, it would cause havoc throughout the country and it would destroy his reputation. History would see him as a joke, although I pretty much think that it will anyway. I’m thinking in a hundred years, Roberts will be thought of very much as we think of Melville Fuller and Roger Taney. But I’m sure that Roberts doesn’t see it that way and so I’m sure that he will try to maintain the credibility of his court for a while longer. I also think that some of the other justices might be swayed — especially Thomas but also possibly Scalia.
Paul Ryan’s New PR Campaign for Ezra Klein — Oops!
But what are we to make on the issue of Ezra Klein’s new article about Paul Ryan? Well, this is hardly new. Paul Ryan is out with a new PR campaign that is still vague. When Paul Ryan was out with a budget that was vague, Ezra Klein was very positive. It was only later when he saw the actual budget that he wrote:
I believe I have some credibility when I say that the budget Ryan released last week is not courageous or serious or significant. It’s a joke, and a bad one.
For one thing, Ryan’s savings all come from cuts, and at least two-thirds of them come from programs serving the poor. The wealthy, meanwhile, would see their taxes lowered, and the Defense Department would escape unscathed. It is not courageous to attack the weak while supporting your party’s most inane and damaging fiscal orthodoxies. But the problem isn’t just that Ryan’s budget is morally questionable. It also wouldn’t work.
Paul Ryan Hates the Poor
It’s the same thing here. When it comes down to it, will Paul Ryan be willing to tax any rich person a single cent to help the poor? No. Will he be willing to end loopholes that the rich use? No. Will he be willing to cut corporate welfare or military expenditures? No. No. No! Ryan isn’t a community organizer. So why is part of his “plan” to Establish a new spirit of togetherness? This is PR pure and simple and when it comes down to a choice between helping poor people and allowing the rich to keep every penny they ever “made” he will jump to his knees and start kissing the feet of the rich.
There’s another aspect of this. It’s what I find most annoying. Paul Ryan has never accomplished anything. It’s not just that his budget was morally reprehensible. It’s that it wasn’t really a budget. It was the kind of vague document that I could have hammered out in an evening playing around with a spreadsheet. But he claimed to care about the budget and all the pundits followed him around like he was some kind of genius. And now he claims he cares about the poor and the whole process is starting over again. What has Paul Ryan ever done for the poor that would make anyone think he was serious? Nothing. Yet he’s done a lot against the poor and claims that he went into politics because of his love of Ayn Rand who despised the poor.
Ezra Klein Up to His Old Stupidity
So why is Ezra Klein pretending that Paul Ryan actually has something to offer? I don’t know because I thankfully don’t live inside Klein’s mind. But history shows that emotionally, Klein wants to be a Serious Centrist. He really wants to believe that the political truth is in the center between the two extremes. So as long as Paul Ryan is mushy about what he wants to do, Klein lets his feelings rule. But the moment there is actual data to look at, his brain goes berserk. His nice feelings cannot stand up to the cold hard logic that shows that Paul Ryan is a fraud.
But in this case, I don’t suspect there ever will come a day when Paul Ryan comes out with some hard proposals. He’s realized that when people can see what is actually behind all his nice rhetoric, they tend to turn against him. They stop giving him awards. So he’ll just continue to say nice things (And I like some of them!) but they will come to nothing. Because there is one thing I can safely say about Paul Ryan having watched him over the years: he’s a coward. And now that he knows where the dangers are, he will stay away from them. And he and Ezra Klein will never disagree again.
Paul Ryan 2017
Now that the Republicans have full control of Washington, Paul Ryan finally got his great big tax cut for the rich. This is why I think he will retire. Why not? There is literally nothing more for him to do. All that talk about caring about the poor? Poof! He’s raised taxes on the poor. For a man that thinks taxes are so evil, he has to really hate the poor to raise their taxes. Ezra Klein does, of course, just 6-7 years late understand that Paul Ryan is nothing but a flimflam man.
I’m inclined to say, “Better late than never.” But that just isn’t true. In this case, late is exactly the same as never.
Why You Should Read Frankly Curious and Not Ezra Klien
Back in late 2014, I wrote an article, “Why Republicans and Democrats Act Differently.” It a good example of some of the small things that Donald Trump has made better. Now Klein sticks with writing about important things rather than repeating things that everyone knows.
We will leave aside the fact that his article is not about that; it is about what makes Democrats and Republicans different. It’s only been many years that I’ve known why Democrats and Republicans don’t understand each other: they are different. But the question is: why do Republicans and Democrats act so differently.
Old Data: People Don’t Call Themselves Liberals
Klein spends 2,000 words on this question, throwing lots and lots of data at the reader. And much of it is very old. For example, there are a lot more self-identified conservatives than liberals. Yet these same people consistently associate themselves with the Democratic Party by six or more percentage points. What could be the reason?! Well, part of it is just that for the last four decades the Republican Party has systematically vilified the word “liberal.”
But more important is just the fact that the Democratic Party and the liberal movement itself is not ideological. Or at least, not nearly as ideological as the Republican Party. It is, at its core, a practical movement that is interested in improving the living conditions of the people of this country and the world. As a result, most liberals don’t even think of themselves that way.
They think of themselves as practical problem solvers. It never occurs to them that Social Security is a collectivist attack on “freedom.” It’s just a program that improves the lives of the elderly without otherwise causing a great deal of disruption.
Another Shocker: Conservatives Are Really Ideological
Conservatives, on the other hand, live in a theoretical world where any law is just the leading edge of the End of Freedom™ as we know it. They have been making the same arguments since the income tax was created.
The End of Freedom™ never comes, but they continue to see it right around the corner. They would be seen as loony if they continued to attack Social Security (although many still do), and that’s why whatever is new is the thing that brings the End of Freedom™. Hence: Obamacare!
Conservatives Supposedly Hate Big Government
The best example of this is something I’ve talked about many times here: government size. At least in theory, conservatives are for a small government. They have no reason for being for small government except for some irrational fear that a large government will destroy “freedom.”
At the same time, these very same conservatives believe in big government when it comes to the things that governments traditionally use to oppress their people: the military and police services. But it is the big government that feeds the poor and subsidizes public libraries that they think will cause the End of Freedom™. Whatever.
Despite What Conservatives Say: Liberals Are Not for Big Government
Liberals, in contrast, have absolutely no interest in the size of government. They are interested in results. Does it take big government to feed the poor? Fine! Can it be done with a small government? Fine! Can it be done without any government at all? Fine!
It doesn’t matter to us because we aren’t interested in theory about the size of the government. We want to feed the poor. We are a practical people.
Get the Smelling Salts: Conservatives Are Insane
I think that modern American conservatives are crazy and delusional. But I don’t think ideology is necessarily a bad thing. I too believe in maximizing freedom. But I live in the real world. I know what freedom actually is. I know that I’m much more likely to have my freedom harmed by a cop who mistakes me for someone else than I am by a small increase in tax rates.
And that gets to the very heart of worrying about theoretical “freedom.” It allows demagogues to manipulate you.
How Liberals Look at Policy
As a liberal, I don’t have to worry about that. When Obamacare was being debated, the terms were very clear: greatly increasing the number of people who have health insurance in exchange for tiny tax increases. That’s a fine deal.
How Conservatives Lie About Policy
But that wasn’t the way that Obamacare was presented by conservatives. It was presented as: the government is taking over healthcare! (Not true.) It’s in exchange for destroying the great healthcare we have now! (Not true.) It will increase prices! (Not true.) And it will eliminate your choice (Not true.) Finally, it is designed to kill old people! (Not true.)
Notice that the conservative arguments against Obamacare were never honest. The real argument conservatives had against it was that it raised taxes on the rich to provide healthcare for the poor. That was the real argument, but the demagogues knew that argument would never fly! So they just lied — a skill they have perfected over the last several decades.
Take Your Pick: Effective Government or Lie that Funnel More Money to Rich
So I feel that the liberal pragmatic approach to politics is the sane one. All conservatives offer to people is an ideology that hides what’s really going on.
And what’s really going on is actually just as practical as the Democratic’s governing. It is just that they provide their base with an ideology that is made up of little more than lies and the practical result of taking money from the poor and middle classes and giving it to the rich.
There are lots of ideologies one could follow. The ideology followed by conservatives is just one designed to hide the practical results, which most conservatives would hate. Lucky for them, they have an unbelievably ignorant and naive base.
So there you go: with half the words, I’ve described the difference between the parties. And I’ve done it with far more flair.
I really like Ezra Klein. For one thing, he’s a hard-working guy—he posted the following clip at 3:52 am, his time. But even more important, he knows how to cut to the chase (unlike the people who work for him who are also good just not as). On the issue of what has changed in the Obama administration, he says:
Most in the White House will admit it: Over the past few months, their strategy has swung from seeking compromise to welcoming confrontation. After the debt-ceiling debacle, they stopped believing that they could reach a deal with House Republicans. And so they stopped emphasizing policies they thought Republicans would like and began emphasizing policies — like the Buffett rule — that they thought the public would like. But then a funny thing began to happen. The president’s numbers began to rise. And with it, the possibility that seeking confrontation might force the Republicans to welcome compromise.
Which is what liberals have been saying all along. And this doesn’t mean we’ll be happy with Obama. In fact, there are still very real fears that this change in the president is just for the sake of the election and that he will go back to his old ways once the election is over. We will see. Regardless, it would be devastating for the country if he were to lose the election.
Kornacki v Klein (20 Mar)
I was pretty sure that
Up would be taken over by either Ezra Klein or Steve Kornacki. They were the only two people I remember guest hosting the show. I figured it would be Klein because Kornacki co-hosts The Cycle. But instead, MSNBC went with Kornacki. I think there are two reasons for this. First, Klein is a bit young — just 28 years old. And he’s still kind of green. He is great in writing, but on screen, he just doesn’t do it. I say this, but personally, I love it when he fills in for one of the prime-time hosts. He chooses really interesting subjects (that he’s already written about that day, but still) and he really lets his inner liberal come out.
The second reason that MSNBC picked Kornacki must be to rescue the only real talent off of the horribleThe Cycle. In the past, I’ve been impressed with Kornacki hosting
Up. There is one question, however: will he be able to stay awake. It is very clear he is not a morning person.
But I look forward to seeing the show with him.
Ezra Klein Gives Paul Ryan a Break (21 Mar)
I like Ezra Klein; he is very honest and accurate and insightful. But he is too committed to a middle-of-the-road approach to politics.
In Wonkbook today, he discusses the new Paul Ryan budget. And as is his way, he dismantles it. Like many other commentators, he notices that the budget can be described in one sentence: take from the poor; give to the rich; pacify the old (for now).
But he starts his article thus:
I don’t think Paul Ryan intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. Similarly, I don’t think Mitt Romney intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. But there’s a reason their budgets turned out so similar: The Republican Party has settled on four overlapping fiscal commitments that leave them with few other choices.
Really? Choices are intentions. If the Republicans chose to put the interests of the rich over the interests of the poor, then they intended to make the budget the way they did. It isn’t as though they thought that giving huge tax breaks to the rich didn’t have consequences. They created their budgets, saw that they were screwing the poor, and thought, “That’s fine.” Because here’s the thing: Republicans do hate the poor. It is not a surprise that their biggest constituencies are the rich and the evangelicals. These are people who believe that wealth indicates moral superiority, whether for self-serving (rich) or dogmatic (evangelical) reasons. “They are poor because they are immoral!”
If Ryan creates an evil budget, should we really allow him the room to wiggle out of what the budget really says about his character, and that of his party?
I don’t think so, but then, I’m not committed to making nice like Ezra Klein.
In it, he claims that the 112th Congress really is particularly bad. I don’t think anyone will argue with this. Congress is, after all, less popular than the idea that the United States should go communist. But as I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear, Klein’s problem is a very general, “Why can’t they all just get along?”
Do Nothing Congress
Most of what he says in the article is true — as I’ve noted many times before, Ezra Klein is a smart guy. In Reason One, he notes that Congress isn’t passing many laws — about one-third as many as the worst previous Congress. Why? Klein doesn’t say, but I think we are supposed to assume they’re all equally to blame.
His second Reason is that Congress is hideously unpopular. This is curious, as it hardly makes Klein’s case; this is a rare instance (But wait, there’s more!) of his stupidity or sloppiness or both. The third Reason — that they are polarized — also doesn’t seem to matter, but has the added benefit of not addressing the primary reason for the polarization: the extreme ideology of the Republican Party.
How Did Congress Set Back Recovery?
His fourth Reason is that Congress has set back the recovery. Although this is undoubtedly true, he uses a correlation between the time of the debt ceiling debate and a summer economic downturn to justify it. Dean Baker has shown that this argument is specious; I’m surprised that Klein is still pushing it.
Number Five is that Congress hurt our credit rating. This is true, but as many people have noted, it doesn’t matter. What’s more, isn’t this the same as Number Four?
Number Six is an attack on the Super Community. Okay. Whatever. I think we were better off without a deal, but it is a fair complaint.
The Great False Equivalence Game!
Number Seven refers to the fact that the House has voted 33 times to repeal the ACA. And Praise the Lord: Klein admits that this was the Republicans’ fault! I just have one question: since the House voted 33 times, why is the title of this Reason 36 repetitions of the word “Repeal”?
Having rightly stated that the Republicans made the House vote 33 times to repeal the ACA, Klein cannot even wait a moment before going after the Democrats. Number Eight is the Senate giving up on proposing budgets that won’t pass anyway. It is a fair complaint, but it is the opposite of Number Seven. It means the Senate Democrats don’t want to waste time with symbolic votes. The argument could be made that this is a good thing. Klein does not make it.
Number Nine complains that Congress can’t get appropriations done on time. Again, this is just a problem with the Congress. No one — and certainly not Ezra Klein — knows why it is behaving in this way. Could it be something in the water? No one knows!
No one knows about Number Ten either: the transportation-infrastructure fiasco. But this is not surprising because this is just a special case of Number Nine — one for which Ezra Klein has an unnatural fascination. (Don’t make me look up the links; you have Google!)
The FAA shutdown is Reason Eleven and it is explicitly non-judgmental. The Republicans wanted to use this issue to destroy more unions. The Democrats found this unacceptable. The mystery remains. Odds are still on that tainted Congressional water.
Evil Twins: Obama and Shelby
And then we get to Number Twelve: failing the Fed. Here Ezra Klein reaches new heights of false equivalence! The Republicans have been filibustering Obama’s Fed nominees. But it isn’t just their fault. It is also Obama’s fault. Why? Because Obama didn’t nominate people fast enough and get them confirmed in the 111th Congress. You see, he should have known that the Republicans had become wackjobs and that they would filibuster everything that came along as soon as Ted Kennedy died. And he should have known that Ted Kennedy would die. And that he would be replaced with a Republican. So: Republicans-0; Democrats-0. See: they’re equivalent!
Klein goes on to talk about Richard Shelby blocking the nomination of Peter Diamond. There’s no false equivalence here! It is all Shelby all the time. He didn’t get any help from his party. And that party was what? I can’t remember.
Pay No Attention to the Experts I Cite
Number Thirteen is the best one of the list, and the main reason I wrote this article. Klein states that The Experts agree that this is a terrible Congress. Who are these experts? Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. But nowhere in the discussion of these experts does Klein admit to what the authors have said explicitly and repeatedly: the dysfunction of the 112th Congress is almost entirely the fault of the Republican Party.
Don’t Drink the Water, Ezra!
Klein ends with another meaningless Reason: there are real problems that need to be solved. No kidding! And isn’t this what several of his other Reasons were?
This article is Klein at his worst: major false equivalences and sloppy reporting. I fear he may be drinking that Congressional water.
Ezra Klein Teaches Punditry in One Lesson (18 Jul)
This in itself is deceptive. It is only Fox News and colleagues who are discussing President Obama’s statement that entrepreneurs didn’t create the environment in which their businesses operate, and these “news” sources are only discussing it by pretending that what he meant was that entrepreneurs don’t create their own businesses. So once again, Klein simply ignores the silliness of the Right.
What Business Owes to Society
He goes on to say that there are two issues to discuss. The first is how much entrepreneurs owe to society. But this one he tosses away because he says that we can’t answer it. He adds, “After all, while entrepreneurs owe much to societies, societies also owe much to entrepreneurs.” This statement really angers me.
Entrepreneurs are part of society. Nothing they do is for the good of society; it is all for themselves. As I’ve discussed before, businesses don’t exist to create jobs; they create jobs only because they absolutely have to in order to make more money. What’s more, if PepsiCo had never existed, some other company &mdash ;maybe many — would have been successful in fulfilling this market niche.
Klein’s Romatic Hero Falacy
The underlying assumption in Klein’s article is that romantic heroes (individuals and companies) are what create our society. The opposite is the case: society creates individuals who improve the society.
It is sad that an advanced society such as ours still holds onto this childish notion of hero worship. Even people I greatly admire are products of their time and place. If Cervantes had not revolutionized the novel, someone else would have soon enough. If Einstein hadn’t revolutionized classical physics, someone else would have soon enough. If Martin Luther King Jr hadn’t pushed Kennedy and then Johnson to enact civil rights legislation, someone else would have soon enough.
We see more than enough proof of this; for example, calculus was invented simultaneously by Newton and Leibniz, who were both building on work dating back millennia. So the question is most definitely not “What does business do for society?” but rather “What does society do for business?” And the answer is: everything.
How Much Should Society Invest in Business
Klein’s second issue is the proper level of public investment in infrastructure to support business. Here he says that Romney and Obama only disagree over levels. Romney doesn’t believe in no investment and Obama doesn’t believe in 100 percent investment.
I’ll yield the point, but I’m not certain of this, given that many libertarians do argue for 0 percent investment in the public sphere. I suspect that in his heart, Romney shares this belief but calculates that it is too extreme a view to make publicly. Obama, on the other hand, is very much a free marketeer. In our society we find many extremist libertarians; we find almost no extremist communists.
He ends the article with an odd sentence:
Romney thinks we should do more to reward the successful and less to help the poor, and Obama thinks we should raise taxes on the successful so we can improve the lot of the poor.
Why is it that Klein assumes that the successful are only the very rich? Obama only wants to raise taxes on the top 2%. I suspect that most small business owns (97% of whom are not in the top 2% of income earners) would consider themselves successful. Most middle-class scientists, artists, and teachers consider themselves successful.
Romney wants to do little to help them, and in many cases, he wants to harm them. Since Klein is a careful writer, I can only assume that he means exactly what he wrote. That means he has a highly distorted view of our society. And that is a very big problem.
 I’m reaching here. MLK was really only the leader of the civil rights movement in retrospect. He was hugely important but there were many others.
 This is classic Ayn Rand thinking. The idea goes that a person’s worth to society is entirely measured by their incomes. Thus Hitler was very valuable to his society and Mother Teresa was almost worthless to hers. Despite how obviously wrong this idea is, many people on the right in America believe it.
He Smiles in Paul Ryan’s Face (15 Aug)
If I could talk to Paul Ryan, I would tell him, “
He smiles in your face, all the time he wants to take you place.”
I am speaking, of course, of Ezra Klein. I’m sure you’ve noticed it.
What’s he doing? He’s getting downright hysterical. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: we’re all hysterical about Paul Ryan. We’re upset that people refer to him as a deficit hawk. We hate that he’s supposed to be an intellectual. And we go almost apoplectic when reporters refer to him as “serious.” We have every right to be hysterical.
The Ezra Klein Way
But that’s not Ezra Klein’s way. He’s the reasonable policy centrist. Or he used to be.
Again and again and again and again, yeah: Ezra Klein is writing about Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. That’s four agains:
In the accompanying text, the Bipartisan Policy Center is clear on what that means. “In order to remain revenue-neutral, nearly every tax expenditure would have to be eliminated.” I don’t believe that Ryan is going to eliminate nearly every tax expenditure, nor that it would be a good idea if he did.
I’d perhaps feel differently if Ryan had a history of voting to pay for tax cuts, or voting to trim tax cuts that couldn’t be paid for. But he doesn’t. He voted for the Bush tax cuts without demanding offsets. He voted to extend the Bush tax cuts without demanding offsets. He voted to repeal the House’s “PayGo” rule, which says both new spending and new tax cuts need to be paid for, and to replace it with the “CutGo” rule, in which spending cuts need to be paid for and tax cuts don’t. And, while he’s told the Congressional Budget Office to assume revenue neutrality, he pointedly did not include even a single offset for the tax plan in his budget.
If you assume Ryan’s tax plan would not be paid for, then it only raises 15.5 percent of GDP in revenue, and Ryan’s plan is the single most fiscally irresponsible plan on the graph.
I know where Ezra is coming from. He’s the policy wonk. He’s
the guy who stifles his own beliefs for the sake of disingenuous balance. He’s the guy whose sex life is limited to bar graphs. How can this pretender — This charlatan! — be the media’s wonk darling? It’s not fair!
And you know something? Ezra Klein is right. There are many, many things to hate about Paul Ryan. But perhaps the worst is that he dumbs down our entire culture. If pretend intellectuals get more respect than real intellectuals, what is the point of studying hard and going to school and all that smart guy shit? Talk about promoting bad incentives!
Now, who’s the backstabber?
Ezra Klein Gets Pissed (16 Aug)
I tell you, this young man is angry. I don’t think people understand the significance of this. Despite my recent attempts at humor, Ezra Klein is a sober, careful policy expert. He is not prone to hyperbole. Yet the Romney campaign seems to be driving him over the edge.
This is what mild-mannered centrist Ezra Klein had to say about Romney’s budget this morning:
Tell me again why I’m supposed to believe that this presidential candidate who is systematically ruling out cuts to the most popular spending programs and tax breaks is going to be able to make incredibly unpopular spending cuts and tax changes once in office?
As I wrote the other day: Romney’s budget plan is a fantasy, and it will never happen.
You never want to make a nice guy mad.
Noogie for Ezra (31 Aug)
I like Ezra Klein. Really. I’ve attacked him on a number of occasions, but overall, he’s a smart and insightful guy.
But he’s also a numbers nerd who seems about as comfortable in his body as your average 13-year-old rocket builder.
The biographical portion of Romney’s speech was very strong. I’m not among those who thinks Romney needed to be “humanized.” He always struck me as a good, decent family man. But if you did think he needed to be humanized, he probably did an effective job of answering the concern.
Kind of like Spock saying, “I don’t understand why humans don’t relate to Mitt Romney. He seems perfectly logical to me.”
Oh Ezra, you are so cute! I want to give you a noogie!
It’s Bad the Poor Don’t Vote (17 Sep)
Ezra Klein (I know, I know: another WonkBlog post!) has an article debunking the conservative media meme that poor people are coming out to vote for Obama in big numbers because he’s bribed them with luxuries like food stamps.
The problem, as Klein notes, is that, “Poor people actually don’t vote that often.”
A Slight Deception Ezra Klein Graph
He provides this helpful chart:
But there is a problem with this graph: it’s deceptive. The percent of the population is not the same as the percent of the population that votes. So I took the percent of people who voted in 2008 from the United States Election Project. The number was 56.9%, although we could use 62.2%, which is the percent of eligible voters. (I used 56.9% because it gives numbers that are closer to other estimates.)
A More Accurate Graphy By Frankly Curious
Using this, we get a better idea of just how big the discrepancy is:
% Who Vote
Don’t quote me on these numbers, because they are still too high compared to other estimates. But regardless of the numbers that you use, you can see that the poor are very likely not to vote and the rich are very likely to vote. What’s more, the very poor are hardly likely to vote at all and the very wealthy are almost certain to.
The Want to Vote — But We Make It Very Hard
None of this should be a surprise. It isn’t that the poor don’t think voting is important. But picking up your kid from school or getting to work on time (Or both!) may be more important. The rich—almost by definition—have more choices, including the best choice: not to choose. They can, for example, have someone else (A poor person who doesn’t vote!) pick up the kid. If they work, it is at a job where the boss will understand if they’re late because they had to vote.
Put simply, the rich have options while the poor don’t. And given this, we do not live in a democracy.
I [Heart] Ezra (20 Sep)
As you all know, I’ve have found Ezra Klein to be a trial at times. But recently he has been really good. I don’t say this just because I agree with him. I say it because he’s been thought provoking.
I haven’t thought that much about Romney’s 47% remarks. To me, the comments come as absolutely no surprise. Of course he thinks this! This is one of most exasperating things about modern politics. It is fine to imply the vilest of things, but if you say
them: horror! It’s fine for Todd Akin to believe that the government should have complete control over a woman’s body from the moment she conceives. But the moment he backs up his claim with a widely held myth it is an outrage. Well, it was an outrage all along.
Others have noted that Romney’s comments indicate that he’s an entitled rich white guy. Quelle surprise! Klein discusses why the idea that the poor “don’t take responsibility” is so wrong:
The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier, that give you time and space to focus on what you want to focus on.
That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.
The problem is living the dream has blinded him to other people’s reality. His comments evince no understanding of how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, how awful it is to choose between skipping a day on a job you can’t afford to lose and letting your sick child fend for herself. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.
Romney, apparently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve really had it hard. “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a former auto executive and governor told the room of donors. “Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.” This is a man blind to his own privilege.
Which is his right. But that sentiment informs his policy platform—which calls for sharply cutting social services for the poor to pay for huge tax cuts for the rich—and it suggests he’s trying to make policy with a worldview that’s completely backward.
Maybe it is because Ezra tries so hard to be fair that he can be so wonderfully incisive when true affronts come along. Now he needs to delve into the rest of the video that keeps on giving. Regardless, at least for today, I [heart] Ezra Klein.
What’s the Point of Being President if You Can’t Enrich Your Friends? (2 October)
You know its going to be a good column when Ezra Klein starts with, “Ryan… called the Tax Policy Center study ‘thoroughly debunked’ when it’s not even been dented.” When I saw the Chris Wallace interview, I wasn’t sure if Ryan was talking about TPC study when he said that. Could it be? I thought it probably was and for the first time, I understood the point of all those other studies that claimed to rebut it, but in fact only reinforced it. They were there to muddy the waters so that Romney and Ryan could go around saying that the TPC study had been “debunked.”
Conservative Ideas Are Toxic
The problem with conservatives is that their ideas are so toxic, they must talk around them. They can’t just explain what their policies are. So any criticism has to be deflected and obfuscated. And we see this in the part of the Wallace interview that has received the most attention. In it, Ryan pretends that the Republican budget proposal is so complicated that it would take too much time to discusses it.
Four-Step Republician Texocity
Klein is having none of it. He provides a four step explanation of their budget:
In 2015, the Romney-Ryan rate reduction will reduce tax revenue by $480 billion compared to current policy. That’s the raw number, before you start arguing over behavioral responses or growth.
Of that $480 billion, 39.1 percent, or $187 billion, will go to the top 1 percent.
Since the Romney-Ryan plan isn’t supposed to cut taxes on the rich or increase the deficit, all Romney and Ryan need to do is identify $480 billion in tax breaks they’re going to close, of which at least $187 billion needs to come from the top 1 percent.
If they believe that accelerated economic growth or behavioral responses are going to close some of that gap for them, they need to say how much, and what they’re basing that assumption on.
It takes me 45 seconds to say this. And it would be a lot faster if Klein wasn’t so accurate with the numbers.
Ryan Knows Plan Sucks
But Ezra Klein is no idiot. He knows that the reason Ryan isn’t talking about the details of the plan is that it sucks:
But they’re not going to do that, because the problem isn’t that the math on their plan takes too long to detail. It’s that the math on their plan can’t be done. Or, it can be done, but when you do it, you get answers the Romney campaign doesn’t like—for instance, that the tax plan will either raise taxes on the middle class or add to the deficit.
Romney Loves It; America Hates It
Here I think that Klein is slightly off. The Romney campaign likes it just fine. It is the vast majority of the country who doesn’t. Like most conservative ideas, it’s toxic. But rather than create policy that voters might approve of, the Romney campaign is committed to enriching their constituency: the 1%.
And if they can’t do that, what’s the point of being President?
Every time Ryan was asked about how he could make the impossible numbers add up, he retreated to abstract defenses of tax reform. For instance:
That’s—so look at the way our tax system works right now. We have a very narrow tax base. We raise about $1.2 trillion a year through income tax revenues. We forgo about $1 trillion a year through tax expenditures. So look how narrow that tax base is. So what we’re saying is, you can lower tax rates by 20 percent across the board, limit some tax expenditures and loopholes and deductions without hitting middle class taxpayers…
Right, but nobody is denying that some form of tax reform is possible. What they’re claiming—indeed, what they’ve proven—is that Romney’s specific proposed form of tax reform is not possible. If he wants to keep current revenue levels, cut tax rates by 20 percent, and hold tax rates on capital constant, and he does, he will reduce revenue, increase effective tax rates on the middle class, or both. All Ryan can do is flee from the math.
The Moderation of Romney (8 Oct)
Ezra Klein discusses Moderate Mitt isn’t so moderate. In it, he notes that what was once a Republican extremist is today called a Republican moderate. I’ve sort of come to terms with this by noting that while Republicans may not have been this extreme in public, this was always who they were. You know, Nazis.
Ezra Klein on The Republicans All Along
Klein puts forward a really good definition:
As the Republican party has moved to the right in recent years, so too has our standard for what counts as a moderate Republican. These days, if you’re willing to admit that President Obama was probably born in the United States, that the U.S. Treasury probably shouldn’t default on its debts, and that someone, somewhere, might occasionally have to pay taxes, then congratulations, you’re a moderate Republican!
Romney’s Bipartisan Bullshit
He then goes on to note the ridiculousness of Romney’s claim that he can work “across the isle”—from a different perspective than usual. He gets to the heart of Romney’s character:
The problem for those of us who would like to see the return of Moderate Mitt—and I count myself in that number—is that there’s little reason to believe Romney would find himself forced to work with Democrats if he was president, at least at the outset. Rather, a Romney win is likely to also mean Republicans take the House and the Senate. Romney’s worries, in that world, will be losing conservative Republicans in the House and inspiring a primary challenge in 2016. There’s no way he’ll pick fights with the right in order to govern from the center. And given that Republicans already don’t trust Romney, he’s likely to have less leeway than the typical Republican president in redefining what “right” is, the way George W Bush did with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act.
Yep. That’s about it. I would just add that “Moderate Mitt” is not all the great anyway. Also: No Child Left Behind is not a good thing.
The problem is that China has pegged its currency to the dollar, and this hurts US manufacturing, even as it subsidizes US consumers. This is a problem because pretty much everyone agrees that it is better to have a job than to have cheap toilet paper. But in an excellent article at Wonk Blog today, Ezra Klein explodes this and other myths about Chinese currency manipulation: Five facts you need to know about China’s currency manipulation.
Mostly, the article is a major slam against Romney’s bellicosity on the China issue. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let me discuss the undervalued renminbi. It is true that the renminbi is undervalued.
And it is true that this hurts American manufacturing. But the Chinese have lowered the value of the renminbi relative to the dollar significantly over the last 5 years. This has left the Chinese currency less undervalued than that of Singapore and Taiwan. And probably also Switzerland and Japan.
We Could Have Lowered the Value of Our Currecy
Klein points out something that I should have noted before: if we want a weaker dollar, we can just devalue it ourselves. It is well established that a weaker dollar will create more American exports. In fact, this is how trade imbalances work themselves out: if China is selling more to us than we are them, the value of their currency should increase until the imbalance disappears.
The problem is that politicians in the United States — conservatives especially! — hate a weak dollar. There are two aspects of this. One is that the rich want to keep the dollar strong because they don’t care about jobs — they just want all of their money to buy as much as possible. (This is short-sighted, of course.)
The other aspect is that politicians suffer from penis envy: they always want big weapons systems and a strong dollar.
Most of Ezra Klein’s article is about Romney’s claim that he will “get tough” on China: publicly humiliate them for their sins of currency manipulation. But he shows that this is a really bad idea.
First, the Chinese are a proud people; publicly calling them out is almost certain to backfire. We don’t want a trade war with China right now. Second, over the last 5 years (Who was President during most of that time?) China has been doing what we want. Does it really make sense to start yelling at them when we ought to be praising them?
Expect to see a lot of nonsense from Romney tonight at the debate. And when Obama counters this nonsense, you’ll know what the truth is.
Update (22 October 2012 1:35 pm)
Paul Krugman weighs in on this issue. Can’t he leave anything for me?
In 2010 an undervalued renminbi was a significant drag on advanced economies, including the United States. Since then, however, two big things have happened: relatively high inflation in China, and some appreciation of the renminbi against the dollar. As a result, the real exchange rate of China against the United States (based on consumer prices), has appreciated significantly…
So this is an odd time to be making confrontation over China’s currency a centerpiece of your economic policy—unless, of course, it’s just bluster aimed at making voters think you’re tough.
And I beat Dean Baker, but he has now written about the issue. As usual, he has much insight into the problem. He goes into far more depth than I did about how currency values and trade deficits work. If you want to get into the weeds, go read the whole article. Here is his summation:
Okay, if we want to have something near a balanced budget without a bubble driving our economy then we have to get the dollar down to get our trade closer to balance. This is not an optional policy or a debatable point. It is a simple matter of logic. If you disagree, think about it more until you understand why there is no choice.
So by all means, let’s stop the China bashing. And let’s start talking seriously about getting the dollar down to level consistent with more balanced trade.
Earlier in the article, he pointed out who is behind all of this. To the rentiers who I mentioned, he adds:
It is also important to remember that the bad guys in this story are at least as likely to be sitting in corporate suites in the United States as in China or other developing countries. Major U.S. corporations like Walmart and General Electric have profited enormously from low-cost labor in China and elsewhere. They have little interest in seeing prices on the goods produced in the developing world rise and their profit margins fall.
Block Granting is Backdoor Destruction (30 Oct)
Don’t get a nerd mad. You won’t like him when he’s mad.
In it, he goes after Romney, and conservatives more generally, about their ridiculous claims that “block granting” is the answer to every federal program. The theory says that by shifting federal programs to the states, the programs will magically become more efficient.
Ezra’s Has Something to Say About That
Klein responds this way:
This shouldn’t need to be said, but spending cuts have consequences. If it was all just waste and fraud, someone else would have done it. If the states were really such genius administrators — and seriously, think about how your state government works, do you really detect such brilliance?—then past presidents would already have availed themselves of the free lunch.
Ezra Klein Is Really Bad at Being Made
Even in his anger, Klein is being too nice. Romney doesn’t think that there are special state-run efficiencies. He thinks what all conservatives think: after you send the programs to the states, you can starve them, making the states pay for an ever larger share.
After a while, the states will not be able to support the programs and the federal government will be off the hook for them.
Block granting is a backdoor to destroy programs. That is the only reason that conservatives like this idea.
Proposition 13: What Destroyed California
I remember in California 30 years ago, Proposition 13 was sold to the people with the claim that there was so much fraud and abuse that the reduction in revenue would not hurt real beneficiaries. It turned out that there was almost no “fraud and abuse” and the people of California have been greatly harmed — especially in the realm of education and support for the elderly.
Yet despite this, Proposition 13 is still the law of the land. (And the low property taxes have not resulted in a lower cost of living; California is still one of the most expensive states to live in.)
Romney’s Cowardly Program Cuts
Romney’s claim is that he is going to fix these programs, but this is secondary to what he is really doing.
This indirect approach to policy is all Romney ever does because he’s unwilling to come right out and admit what he really wants to do. This is much like his $5 trillion tax cut. If you want to balance the budget, why start with a tax cut?
If you really want to make federal programs more efficient, you make them more efficient. You don’t savage their budgets and just guess that somehow it will all work out in the end. Because it never works out in the end.
Yet Another Article About Ezra Klein’s Adorableness (1 Nov)
Ezra Klein wrote a fairly typical article over at Wonk Blog today, The Tax Report Senate Republicans Don’t Want You to See. It discusses the Congressional Research Service report that looks at whether top marginal tax cuts help productivity. They don’t. It also looks at whether top marginal tax cuts increase inequality. They do. But as Klein notes, this is a fairly simplistic analysis that can be argued against.
Marginal Tax Reports
What struck me about the article was something totally unrelated to content. Ezra Klein tells the story of how he got the report. He says that Bruce Bartlett gave it to him after Klein had guest hosted The Ed Show. That’s fine as far as it goes. But he continues:
Not to brag, but people give me a lot of reports on marginal tax rates, so I didn’t think much of it.
Who Thinks Marginal Tax Reports Are Cool?
If you don’t immediately recognize why this is totally adorable, let me explain. There are a couple of aspects of it. First, only a wonderfully unselfconscious nerd would think that being given lots of reports on marginal tax rates was a sign of coolness. “Look at that guy walking down the street with that stack of marginal tax reports: he’s the man!”
It is also charming because Klein doesn’t seem to think that people would consider his guest hosting The Ed Show as bragging. No. Only about a million people watch that show. But those tax reports! That’s what makes the ladies swoon.
All of this should not be taken as sarcasm. I really do think that Ezra Klein is adorable for this kind of stuff. He helps the nerd brand.
There is the whole sour grapes aspect of this, of course. I mean, does Romney really think that he wasn’t promising any “stuff” to his supporters? Klein points out that he was offering quite a lot:
He also promised the rich that they’d see a lower overall tax rate, and while he did say he would try to pay for some of those tax cuts by closing loopholes and deductions, he also said he expected faster growth would pay for those cuts — which means he really was promising tax cuts to the rich at a time when he said deficit reduction should be a top priority. Oh, and let’s not forget his oft-stated intention to roll back the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and replace them with… something.
And let’s also not forget that useless bit of $716 billion dollars that he was ostensibly giving back to seniors but was really giving back to corporations.
But this isn’t what seems most to anger Klein. And I think he’s right:
Romney Just Thinks Giving Money Is Right
But to Romney, and perhaps to the donors he was speaking to, those policies [which helped the young and poor] didn’t count as “gifts.” They were… something else. Good ideas, maybe. Or the fulfillment of past promises. Or perhaps it wasn’t the policies that were different, but the people they were being promised to.
This reminds me of a line from the musical 1776. John Dickinson says, “Mr. Jefferson, are you seriously suggesting that we publish a paper declaring to all the world that an illegal rebellion is, in reality, a legal one?” Franklin responds, “Oh, Mr. Dickinson, I’m surprised at you. You should know the rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as our rebellion. It is only in the third person—”their” rebellion—that it is illegal.”
Conservatives All Think Helping the Rich Is Right
This is not just the way that Romney thinks. All conservatives think that the free stuff of “them” is bad whereas the free stuff of “us” is not only right and good — it is God-given. This gets to the heart of the differences between liberals and conservatives.
Conservatives want to keep things as they are: keep the current rich, rich. Liberals want to upset that; they want to work to equalize things. Thus, the ridiculous amount of money that goes to weapons manufacturers and hedge fund managers are simply right and proper: they keep the inequalities of the system in place. Providing healthcare for the poor? That’s waste because it doesn’t help to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor.
Treating Workers Better Costs a Bit (19 Nov)
Ezra Klein tells us that we shouldn’t laugh when John Schnatter of Papa John’s Pizza tells us that the ACA will cause pizza prices go up by between 11 and 14 cents.
Poor, Poor Papa John’s
It’s nice to have such understanding people like Klein around. And the argument he makes isn’t bad, “The Affordable Care Act isn’t helpful to their business strategy.” And indeed it is not.
Klein goes on to point out that the ACA is helpful in leveling the playing field between companies like Papa John’s that want to treat their employees badly for the sake of a few cents and companies that treat their employees reasonably well. (Examples? I don’t know: CostCo?)
Ezra’s Big Problem?
There is one bit of information about this that Klein seems to be particularly interested in:
As Slate’s Matt Yglesias has noted, that makes the Affordable Care Act an intervention on a particularly worrying change in the economy. In recent years, corporate profits, measured as a percentage of the UA economy have been hitting record highs, even as the share of those profits that go to workers have hit record lows.
The problem is that Klein doesn’t put these bits of information together. Based upon my admittedly meager economics knowledge, I’m willing to admit that Papa John’s can’t sell their pizzas for any more than they currently do. But economics tells us that they sell their pizza for the most they can. So if their pizzas are going to cost more to make, they will have to eat that cost.
How Much of Its “Record High Profits” Will Papa John’s Lose?
But what is that cost? Let’s do a simple calculation. Let’s assume that Papa John’s pizzas cost $11.00 and that the increase in price is 11 cents. (This is erring on Papa John’s side; they likely charge more for pizza, but their website doesn’t want to say without an order.) That’s a 1% increase in costs. In 2010, they grossed $1.126 billion and netted $51.94 million. This implies that the ACA will cost the company $10.7 million.
(This figure is curious. If Papa John’s payed the $2000 fine for not insuring their 16,000 employees, that would be $32 million. But it is hard to say given that Papa John’s is a franchising company. So we’ll just use their numbers. I’m sure they wouldn’t promote a number that understated the cost.)
Being Extremly Liberal, Papa Johns Would Lose 20 Percent
This would indicate that Papa John’s would only net $41.2 million per year. (For the record, I think the losses would be closer to $5 million, given the prices of most pizzas.) And Papa John’s could cut other expenses, such as Schnatter’s salary as CEO.
Don’t Cry for Papa John’s, Ezra Klien! The Truth Is You’re Just an Idiot!
Ezra Klein notes above that profits are at an all-time high. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy about their profits decreasing by as much as 20%.
The issue is not “do people like John Schnatter want to keep as much money as they can.” After all, coal companies would like to keep the money they have to spend complying with environmental regulations. The issue is “if their current business practices are fair to the society as a whole.”
In this case they are not. Those extra profits the company is making now are essentially stolen from the society at large (extra pollution, people getting free care are ERs).
Businesses Always Whine About Anything That Costs Them Money
As for me, I will not eat at Papa John’s again. John Schnatter has seen to that. Nor will I eat at Olive Garden. Or any of these businesses owned by evil fucktards.
Is Obama Selling Us Out — Again? (7 Dec)
Ezra Klein reported this afternoon and then again this evening on The Rachel Maddow Show, that a debt ceiling deal is all but done: the president will take a top marginal tax rate of 37% and raise the retirement age to 67. It sounds outrageous, but Klein makes a compelling case, even though it is very much akin to tea leaf reading.
Basically, he’s saying that Obama used to always say the top marginal tax rate must go back up to the Clinton levels and now he is signaling that he would take less. But this isn’t new. I noticed right after the election that Obama had started saying that income over a quarter million must be taxed more — specifically neglecting to mention how much more. So this isn’t some sudden change.
Maybe Don’t Trust Ezra Klein
Also note that Ezra Klein was completely wrong a couple of weeks ago when he said that Fiscal Cliff negotiations were all but done — right before the Republicans made a week-long show of how there was no progress on the negotiations.
So I’m not at all certain that he is right. But as I said, he makes a compelling case. And if he is right, this is really bad.
First, raising the Medicare age is terrible policy. It would be terrible policy even if the Affordable Care Act were going to be there in full force for 65 and 66 year olds, because it would cost the public $2 for every dollar in federal funds saved. And in case you haven’t noticed, Republican governors are still fighting the ACA tooth and nail; if they block the Medicaid expansion, as some will, lower-income seniors will just be pitched into the abyss.
Second, why on earth would Obama be selling Medicare away to raise top tax rates when he gets a big rate rise on January 1 just by doing nothing? And no, vague promises about closing loopholes won’t do it: a rate rise is the real deal, no questions, and should not be traded away for who knows what.
So this looks crazy to me; it looks like a deal that makes no sense either substantively or in terms of the actual bargaining strength of the parties. And if it does happen, the disillusionment on the Democratic side would be huge. All that effort to re-elect Obama, and the first thing he does is give away two years of Medicare? How’s that going to play in future attempts to get out the vote?
He’s completely right. If Obama does this it will indicate that he’s been playing us all along. He talks pretty, but he is nothing close to liberal. I wish I weren’t so cynical that I didn’t believe it entirely possible.
And note that Ezra Klein shows very clearly what bullshit is this whole business of changing the Medicare eligibility age in the clip from the show that is, of course, no longer available.
Ezra Klein had Peter Orszag on the show tonight. I was taken by the fact that he said that Democrats should be in favor of privatizing Social Security.
He also happens to be a Vice Chairman of Global Banking at Citigroup. You know, a company that stands to make a fortune if Social Security is privatized. But no mention of this was made. Orszag worked for Obama, so of course he’s a liberal. And he has the kind of face you just want to punch the shit out of.
Update (8 December 2012 12:19 am)
The more I think of this, the more I think that Ezra Klein is wrong.
It might be that Obama is putting out signals that he would compromise on Medicare or tax cuts for the rich. But I can’t believe that Obama would give u[ these things for nothing.
Taking 37% top tax bracket (which is not even splitting the difference) is a compromise. What is Klein suggesting that the president is getting for this: raising the Medicare eligibility age? Something that Democrats (and one would think Obama) are against? That makes no sense at all.
Why the Debt Ceiling is No Problem (11 Dec)
Have you stopped thinking about the Fiscal Cliff and moved right on to the brewing debt ceiling fiasco? You are not alone. I haven’t talked much about it recently, but this has been weighing heavily on my mind as well.
Obama Gets a Backbone — Maybe
I liked what I was hearing from the president. Last week at the Business Roundtable, he said, “I want to send a very clear message to people here: we are not going to play that game next year.” Yes! You have to be strong with the Republicans. But let’s face it: playing chicken with a crazy person is very dangerous because they don’t care about the consequences.
Ezra Klein Explains
Today, Ezra Klein laid out the thinking of the White House, and I must say that I find it very persuasive. And comforting:
Whatever House Republicans might think, the White House is all steel when it comes to the debt ceiling. Their position is simple, and it’s typically delivered in the tone of voice that Bruce Willis reserves for talking to terrorists: they’re happy to raise the debt ceiling on their own, as would be the case under their proposal to take authority for the debt ceiling away from Congress. But if Congress rejects that offer, then the debt ceiling is Congress’ problem, and the White House will not help.
A Brilliant Strategy — Or a Strategy at Least — More Than Usual
This is a brilliant strategy. It completely diffuses the situation.
Remember: the debt ceiling is not about funding programs; it is about paying for existing obligations — particularly, interest on our loans. Generally, this is missing from the media discussions of the debt ceiling, where it is generally presented as a budget issue.
But if Republicans threaten to not raise it, the media will get very clear on this point. This will hurt everyone, especially the rich. If the Republicans ever want to win another election outside of Mississippi, they had best not play this game.
In it, he says that Republicans don’t like budget deals because they claim that the tax increases are real while the spending cuts are just chimera. I’d never thought of this because, of course, there is only really evidence for exactly the opposite.
The argument that I’ve long made goes something like as follows. Suppose we cut a trillion dollars out of Social Security and raise taxes by a trillion dollars. There is basically no chance of getting the Republicans to go along with expanding Social Security at a later time.
But tax cuts are usually popular with Democrats. So within a couple of years (especially when the economy is doing well), it will be easy to cut taxes.
Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 and Beyond
And there is a major recent example of this. Starting in 1993, under Clinton, the Democratic Party did the unpopular work of cutting spending and raising taxes. As soon as they could, those tax rates were lowered. The spending cuts are mostly still with us (ask any family that’s recently been kicked off welfare because they ran out of benefits), but the Republicans are apoplectic about the idea of even raising the top tax rates back up to where they were.
Note: George W Bush lowered individuals’ taxes twice. The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 was supposed to sunset in 2008, but it was extended until 2010. Then it was extended until 2012. It was finally allowed to die, but in a special way such that the only tax rate increase was on the top tax bracket. In other words, so still, a huge temporary tax cut was created (Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003), and most of it ended up being permanent.
And then we got the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which will not sunset, because the Republicans set it up so that all the tax cuts that helped the poorer classes will go up so as to allow the rich to keep their tax cuts. Now, it’s very likely that the Republicans are right and Congress will restore those tax cuts. But it will only be done by cutting programs that help the poorer classes. Again: it’s hard to increase benefits for the poorer classes and easy to cut taxes of any kind.
Republicans’ Favorite Wastes of Money: Wars and Corporate Giveaways
Of course, it wasn’t just tax cuts. The Republicans manage to spend ridiculous amounts of money on two wars and a huge corporate giveaway in the form of Medicare Part D. Klein points all this out, of course. But he also dabbles in a bit of Republican apologetics.
He argues that Democrats should still be for a balanced budget because it is good for the country, regardless of what happens in 8 years. (It’s not a good idea now; it’s not a good idea in 8 years.) [Hey! Look what happened in 8 years! The Republicans got a great big tax cut for their rich friends that will eventually have to be paid for by screwing the poor. Well, it wouldn’t really need to be paid for, but moderates like Klein and the Republicans once they aren’t in power will demand it. –FM 27 Jan 2018]
Again: Republicans Don’t Care About the Deficit
I don’t really understand this. Chris Hayes often makes the argument that the Republicans don’t care about the deficit. On last Sunday’s show, he gave an example of this: the only thing the Republican-controlled House has managed to pass is a repeal of the defense sequester. If they cared about the budget, they would have managed to do something other than make it worse.
Republicans just know that the government is too big. Similarly, the vast majority of Villagers just know that the budget deficit is too big. What’s more, they have always known that it is too big.
Before Reagan was in office (26% of GDP), it was too big. After Reagan left office (42% of GDP), it was too big. And now (65% of GDP), it is too big. Does this make the Republicans sound like they are serious about the deficit?
Starve the Beast — And the Poor
This is a recipe for disaster. On one side, you have a group that simply wants to destroy the government. On the other, you have people who think the budget deficit is a terrible thing. Put together, you still end up with a “starve the beast” approach to the budget. Our only hope is that liberals stand up for the positive role that government plays in the lives of Americans. Balancing the budget is a fine idea, but it is not on the top of the list. It is not an end in itself.
With Friends Like Democrats… (26 Dec)
With friends like the Democratic senator from North Dakota, Kent Conrad, do progressives really need Republicans? On Fox News Sunday, Conrad said that everyone should just agree to a Fiscal Cliff deal that averages the last deals of Obama and Boehner. But Ezra Klein notes that this gives the advantage to the Republicans because that was the third offer from Obama and only the second offer from Boehner. The deal would raise taxes by $1.15 trillion and cut spending by $1.45 trillion. So even the 1-1 tax increases to spending cuts wouldn’t be met. And I wasn’t happy about this “balanced” approach.
Who’s for Getting Rid of Social Security?
The problem goes much deeper, however. Obama’s last offer was terrible for the country. In the name of what are surely temporary tax increases, Obama accepted a change that would effectively destroy Social Security in the long run.
What’s more, it is clear that the deal was a final offer: this is what I can do for you to close this deal now. Of course, as many of us said at the time, this was a typical Obama mistake. It will lead to Boehner saying any deal must take Obama’s last deal as the baseline. We can only hope (That audacious feeling!) that Obama will not go along with that. But this is typical of just how bad Obama is at making deals.
Would Senate Democrats Cave? Probably Not as Much as Obama!
Ezra Klein argues that the fear of the White House has always been that in the end Senate Democrats would cave. And that brings us back to Kent Conrad.
I don’t know what’s going on in his mind. But he comes from a conservative state. I suspect that like a lot of Democrats, Conrad is basically a Republican but not crazy. He is one of the reasons that we didn’t get a public option in the ACA. He is one of the reasons we keep drilling a mile under the ocean. And he is one of the idiots who only wants to raise taxes on those making more than a million dollars per year. (After all: who could get pay on only a half million?!)
This Is What You Get When Both Parties Are Bad
So we have more problems than just a conservative president with bad negotiating skills. We have a whole party made up of conservatives who are bad negotiators.
And so we get the kind of policy you would expect in a two-party system made up of conservatives and crazies.
We’re #1… On Healthcare Costs (17 Jan)
Ezra Klein wrote another one of those “chart” articles that he’s so fond of, Two Charts That Should Be in Every Health-Care Discussion. (What is it with everyone thinking “healthcare” is not a word?) The second graph is not very interesting. It shows how much more the United States pays for private healthcare. But of course, everyone knows that. That’s our system. But the first chart? Oh my!
Chart #1: We Pay More Than Anyone!
The first chart shows home much the government spends on healthcare per person and compares it to other similarly rich countries. As with pretty much every chart you can create about healthcare, the United States looks really bad:
Bottom line: the government spends more on healthcare than any other country even though most of the people don’t get their healthcare from the government and 16% of the people don’t get healthcare at all!
Best Healthcare in the Word! If You Can Afford It…
“But!” the conservative will say, “The United States has the best healthcare in the world!” Well, that might be true if you are Dick Cheney. Of course, he isn’t a Medicare patient, and could have bought great healthcare elsewhere.
But for the regular guy? He doesn’t get the best healthcare in the world. Let’s take a look at the countries on the graph.
Ranking County (Cost)
1 France (4)
2 Italy (11)
10 Japan (13)
18 United Kingdom (26)
23 Sweden (7)
25 Germany (3)
28 Israel (19)
30 Canada (10)
38 United States (1)
The number in parentheses is where each country ranks in how much it spends on healthcare. So we’re number one! We’re number one!
One interesting thing here: taken all together (public and private healthcare), the United States pays 70% more than the next closest country, Canada.
We pay roughly 250% more than Israel pays. All while getting much worse healthcare! We’re number one!
There have been a lot of attacks on the WHO healthcare rankings. But they aren’t that compelling.
If you question me, check out Wikipedia. Basically, it is claimed that such rankings aren’t that accurate. This is true, but one thing is certain: the United States healthcare system isn’t head and shoulders better than other systems. And it doesn’t insure 50 million people. [At that time. –FM 25 Jan 2018] And it does this by being by far the most expensive system in the world.
He says that when you take this into account, our life expectancy is higher than in “nearly every other industrialized nation.” But he just claims it, he doesn’t produce any numbers or studies or anything. But consider this: rough 2.5 million people die in the US every year. There are roughly 10,000 homicides each year. That adds 0.4 percent to our death toll. So it’s hard to see how this is going to make a huge change in our life expectancy.
Also, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It is just more apologetics for our failed system. I’m sure there are all kinds of special circumstances you could use for every country that would change its life expectancy. It’s also funny that Fox News would use what is primarily gun homicides to justify our terrible healthcare system.
What About Economic Inequality?
It’s possible that our homicide rate is so high because we have so much economic inequality. Would Fox News be in favor of making our economic system more fair in the name of justifying our terrible healthcare system?
Does the United States really have a worse healthcare system than Costa Rica (ranked 38 in quality and 50 in cost)? For most people, probably not. For people in the bottom half of the economy, almost certainly.
Ezra Klein Gets Angry (19 Jan)
Ezra Klein hosted The Last Word last night. It is always interesting to watch him when he hosts an MSNBC show. Since he is part of my primary reading, I know what he’s going to talk about. But whereas he tries really hard (too hard) to be in the reasonable center in his writing on Wonk Blog, he lets his secret liberal shine through on MSNBC.
A good example of this was when he wrote yesterday about all the conservatives who are claiming that Obama is the reason that the congressional Republicans are so crazy. In the article, he treats it as a curious theory, but he is respectful. During last night’s show, he openly ridicules it (sorry, link removed).
Roughly the same thing happened when he talked about the Business Roundtable’s suggestions about dealing with Social Security and Medicare in the long term. They have some really repugnant ideas that readers of this blog will be aware of. They want to raise the age of eligibility to 70 but they don’t want to do a thing about the ridiculously regressive nature of the tax. This video is particularly compelling because Klein actually gets passionate (video missing) about the issue. Not bad for a 28 year old.
Part of the problem here is that in some ways, Ezra isn’t really a liberal. The main point of his article is that the Fiscal Cliff deal sets up the situation where there will be big government cuts in exchange for very slippery revenue “enhancements” that, frankly, will be only too easy for the Republicans to eliminate in the next couple of years. But to Ezra, that’s a good thing.
Liberals Don’t Hate the Fiscal Cliff Deal All on Its Own
I don’t know of any liberals who really hate the Fiscal Cliff deal all on its own. Everyone is unhappy about what the deal foretells about the upcoming Debt Ceiling negotiation.
The biggest problem is that there will be any negotiation at all. Obama should have just used the constitutional option and ended the problem now and forever more. But I guess that isn’t bipartisan enough for Obama. (Although note: when it comes to his power to drop bombs on anyone he doesn’t like, suddenly it is “fuck the constitution” and the unitary executive all the way.)
Ezra’s Three Fight Possibilities (Work Fight Club!)
Ezra claims there are three possibilities in this fight: (1) one-to-one revenue to cuts; (2) all cuts; and (3) government default.
To start, there are a lot more options than this. It could be a deal that is not all cuts, but is still a really bad deal. In fact, this is the kind of deal that the White House seems to have excelled at these last few years. So why not again? But apart from this, Klein claims that option 3 is the second most likely outcome.
That is very frightening. I don’t think any Fiscal Cliff deal that leads to even a 5 percent chance that the United States government defaults is a worthwhile deal.
Ezra Klein’s Five Arguments — God Help us
In his article, he provides five arguments for why we will see a one-to-one revenue to spending cut deal rather than the one prediction that has historical evidence: Obama will fold.
Four of these five, I find not the least bit compelling. But there is
one argument, that I’ve made myself: the true Republican constituency (the super rich) will not like this game. Klein write:
Fifth, the constellation of economic interest groups that converge on Washington understands the debt ceiling better than they did in 2011, are becoming more and more tired of congress’s tendency to negotiate by threatening to trigger economic catastrophes, and is getting better at knowing who to blame. It’s not a meaningless sign that John Engler, the former Republican Governor of Michigan who now leads the Business Roundtable, called for a five-year solution to the debt ceiling.
The Real Reason Liberals Are Not Calm
But more than the specifics of this discussion, the reason that liberals are unhappy is the same reason that Stanford fans would have been unhappy if their team had eked out a minor win in overtime against Colorado. As I wrote before, “This is the easy fight. This is the slam dunk. If Obama can’t get a good deal with this hand, he’s hopeless.”
That’s why liberals are not calm. I assure you, we will calm right down as soon as we raise the Debt Ceiling with minimal pain. But I don’t expect that to happen, even if Ezra Klein is right about a deal that includes one-to-one cuts to revenue.
Update (2 January 2013 6:37 pm)
You ought to read this blog, because I am willing to come out and say what ought to be said. Specifically, “Fuck you, Ezra. The White House Lost.” If you wanted to read a cooler headline, you could just read Matt Yglesias, because you know I read him — I read him a lot.
Anyway, he reacted to Ezra Klein’s article similarly, Calm Down, Liberals: The White House Lost—Worry About Next Time. He says pretty much what I’ve said, “What in your life is going to go easier if we get a trillion in higher taxes and a trillion in spending cuts? And even more chilling is the possibility that we don’t get the deal and we slam into the debt ceiling.” That’s right.
“Moderate” David Brooks Still Metastisizing (22 Feb)
You all know how much I like Humble David Brooks: he’s a radical economic conservative with some reasonable social beliefs. But he did an interview with Ezra Klein that really surprised me. But before I tell you, let me step back.
This morning’s David Brooks column was a real winner, The DC Dubstep. In it, he falsely claims that Obama had not proposed an alternative to the Sequester. Jonathan Chait was the first person I read who totally demolished the key point of Brooks’ argument. But there were many more — so many, that it got kind of boring.
David Brooks Wants to Appear Reasonable
Although Brooks is a thoroughly unreasonable guy, it is very important to him to appear reasonable. So he updated his column to claim that yes, as a matter of fact, Obama has offered an alternative to the Sequester. But! David Brooks doesn’t think it is enough, so it doesn’t really count.
That’s when, as if to prove that he isn’t nearly as smart as he is given credit for, he accepted Ezra Klein’s invitation for an interview. Oh my!
Ezra Klein: Kinda Smart, Very Knowledgeable
I don’t think Ezra Klein is particularly brilliant. I would definitely put my 28-year-old self against him. But he is very knowledgeable. If I were Brooks, I would have expected to eat a lot of crow. But like when the incredibly good Donald Byrne played against the insanely great Bobby Fischer in 1956, Brooks underestimated his young adversary. It was time for pena ajena.
Really, if you’re up to it, go read the interview. David Brooks totally embarrasses himself! He starts by claiming that the Obama plan hasn’t been scored by the CBO. Klein replies that this isn’t because the plan isn’t scorable, but just because the CBO doesn’t score every proposal that comes around.
David Brooks Embarrasses Himself — Of Course!
Brooks then changes the subject and says the President should be leading with a plan. Klein notes that this is a conservative double bind where the president can’t win.
Brooks again changes the subject and says Obama should do something like Robert Rubin. Klein counters that Rubin is calling for a more liberal plan. Brooks says that the Republicans should have taken Obama offers in the past, but (Of course!) the current Obama offer does not go far enough.
Klein asks what would go far enough. Brooks mentions his dream plan which is not that different from what Obama has offered.
Round Two: David Brooks Gets Hammered Somemore
Klein then goes in a different direction, saying he doesn’t understand why the Republicans won’t take a deal with Obama, given that he is offering them most of what they claim they want. (Ari Melber explained this.)
Brooks says he doesn’t understand why the Republicans are so focused on tax rates. (See how reasonable Brooks is!) Then he goes on to explain that Obama ought to do what Obama is trying to do.
Bottom line: if Obama were a Republican, Brooks would love him!
David Brooks: Moderate Because He Says So
But here’s the thing: Brooks referred to himself as a “moderate.” That’s the word he used. This is a seriously delusional man. His hapless moderate colleague Mark Shields doesn’t even call himself a moderate — and he clearly is. The fact that Brooks calls himself a moderate and even more that Ezra Klein doesn’t blast him about it tells you everything you need to know about modern American politics and the media that covers it.
As I wrote before, journalists seem to think that just because they aren’t for burning homosexuals alive that they are “moderate.” To Books, that apparently means that he doesn’t think that tax cuts are the answer to all problems. It is pathetic.
David Brooks Is Dangerous and Ezra Klein DOesn’t Notice
If Brooks wants me to think that he isn’t a totally crazy Republican who doesn’t know anything, then yeah: he’s not that. He’s much more dangerous. He’s a reasonable-seeming conservative who wants to dismantle the social contract, but says it using nice words and quoting Edmund Burke.
Some liberals may be fooled. I’m not.
David Brooks is a conservative cancer that is metastasizing on the pages of The New York Times and the TV screens tuned to “liberal” PBS.
Adorable and Wrong Ezra Klein (1 Mar)
Ezra Klein was back at it today being totally adorable. And completely wrong.
Republicans: If Obama Did Chained-CPI He’d Be “Serious”
He was in an off-the-record meeting with an unnamed Republican legislator. One of the reporters at the meeting asked the legislator if it would matter to him if the president put Chained-CPI for Social Security on the table. The legislator responded that it would, because, “That’s serious!” This goes along with a very old Republican talking point that the president’s offers are not “serious.”
Reporter: Obama Did Chained-CPI
Well, another reporter chimed in, pointing out what I thought everyone knew: the president has put Chained-CPI on the table.
The legislator laughed and said, “I’d love to see it!”
Ah, yes! It is funny, isn’t it? The very idea that the president has put on the table a policy that he talks about all the time! What are these idiot reporters thinking? (According to Klein, the reported said, “They tell us three times a day that they want to do chained-CPI.”)
Ezra Klein Thinks It’s All Miscommunication
Klein, bless his heart, thinks that this legislator demonstrates that this is all a communication problem: failure to communicate. He argues that the legislator cannot be lying. And I accept this. But Klein seems to think that these partisan fights have something to do with rational thought. They don’t.
The legislator does not know that Obama has offered Chained-CPI in exchange for revenue increases. But if he did (And I’m sure he does now!) he would just change his position to something else. There would be some problem with the president’s proposal. It would have some minor problem that just made it completely unacceptable.
Chained-CPI Is a Terrible Idea
Don’t misunderstand: I think Chained-CPI is a terrible idea! Offering cuts from poor seniors to pay for pocket change from billionaires is no kind of compromise that a reasonable people would accept. But Ezra Klein’s entire argument is wrong. The Republicans aren’t against such a compromise for rational policy reasons. They are against it because (1) keeping taxes low on the rich is the most important thing in the world to them; and (2) they wouldn’t make a deal with Obama anyway.
Congressional Ignorance Is Not Why Republicans Won’t Deal
Yes, there are a lot of really ignorant people in Congress. But this ignorance is not the reason they hold their policy positions. Their policy positions come from the party leadership, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. If new facts come in, these information sources will be sure to explain why the new information doesn’t matter.
What we’ve got here is not failure to communicate.
It has been a while since I’ve seen Cool Hand Luke, but I’m pretty sure everyone is wrong. As I recall, Strother Martin only says this once and the line is not “have” and there is no “a.” It is, as I wrote, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” And that’s kind of funny if you think about it: we have failure to communicate about “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Ezra Klein Wises Up (3 Mar)
Yesterday, I made fun of Ezra Klein for being naive about a congressional representative who seemed to think that Obama had never offered Chained-CPI in a Sequester deal. According to Klein, it was just failure to communicate. As I pointed out, if the legislator were informed that Obama is offering a proposal that he now claims is “serious,” he would turn on a dime. Suddenly there would be all kinds of reasons why Obama’s proposal is not serious.
If Obama could get hold of Klein’s mystery legislator and inform him of his budget offer, it almost certainly wouldn’t make a difference. He would come up with something — the cuts aren’t real, or the taxes are awful, or they can’t trust Obama to carry them out, or something.
Mike Murphy: Reasons One of Infinity
And as if on cue, the Republicans Party set out to prove the truth of this claim. Ezra Klein reports that earlier this month, Mike Murphy, a supposedly reasonable Republican strategist wrote in Time, “six magic words can unlock the door to the votes inside the Republican fortress: Some beneficiaries pay more
and chained CPI, budgetary code for slightly lowering benefit increases over time.” John Harwood tweeted that these words were apparently not so magical because Obama has offered them in negotiation. This is where it really gets good.
Murphy tweeted back that Obama had only offered up means testing and that wasn’t good enough. Apparently, four of the six words is not magical enough. Of course, Murphy was totally wrong: Obama had offered Chained-CPI. Many people blasted him on that point, so Murphy (just as predicted), move his criteria again:
@jonathanchait his CCPI offer is small beans gimmick: only with big new revenue inc and no inc in Medicare age elig, despite aging pop.
And then he retweeted something that says almost exactly what Chait predicted, “Rs also don’t trust him, and there’s history to justify this mistrust.” Ever since this, Murphy has been in full damage control. This morning, he tweeted the following:
@ezraklein 140 chars hard to fully explain but easy to parse. Obama has trust prob with GOP re cuts. Needs to move there first w/o taxes.
Republicans Will Only Exchange Nothing for Something
In other words, I don’t have enough space in a tweet to continue to finesse this issue. He also asks if Democrats will be consistent when Republicans are finally back in the White House. Now, I don’t think that Democrats are particularly consistent. They’ve been terrible about Obama’s overreach in “war” powers. But unlike Republicans, Democrats really are for the things they claim to be. Republicans should drop the pretense that they are open to some kind of deal when they aren’t. Klein sums this up well:
This had led to a lot of Republicans fanning out to explain what the president should be offering if he were serious about making a deal. Then, when it turns out that the president did offer those items, there’s more furious hand-waving about how no, actually, this is what the president needs to offer to make a deal. Then, when it turns out he’s offered most of that, too, the hand-waving stops and the truth comes out: Republicans won’t make a deal that includes further taxes, they just want to get the White House to implement their agenda in return for nothing.
There is another issue with all this. Even “reasonable” Republicans like Murphy are totally unreasonable. Yes, they will write in
Time that they’re open to all kinds of things if only the Democrats would be reasonable. But when it comes right down to it, these “reasonable” Republicans are every bit as much wedded to the “obstruct until we get back in power” strategy as any Tea Party loon.
Ezra Klein’s Useless Correction (17 Mar)
I figure it is almost certain that Ezra Klein will take over Up from Chris Hayes. And that’s good. Klein adds a lot of wonkeliciousness to the table. But in his attempts to be taken seriously, he often makes the mistake of getting Very Serious. He was at it again on Friday with a completely unnecessarily article about the Tax Policy Center’s assessment of the new House Republican budget, No, Paul Ryan Hasn’t Proposed a $400,000 Tax Cut for Millionaires.
His problem is that the Tax Policy Center ran the numbers to see what would happen to the net taxes paid by people in various categories if no loopholes were closed. It shows, of course, that the poor will see almost no tax relief and the rich will see their taxes slashed. But this is wrong, claims Klein; because Paul Ryan says that he will offset these taxes with loopholes that he will close.
Ezra Klein Believes Paul Ryan — Again
The problem is that the TPC can only score the budget with the information that is provided. Ryan (like all other conservatives) doesn’t say what loopholes will be closed. And I think that tells you everything you need to know about his budget: cutting taxes is important, closing loopholes is not. What’s more, as Klein notes, all the TPC is saying is that Ryan’s budget really calls for increasing net taxes on the poorer classes:
What TPC’s numbers suggest is that if Ryan—or House Ways and means Chairman Dave Camp—is going to achieve his “goal” of revenue-neutral tax reform that ends with a 10 percent and a 25 percent bracket, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to avoid putting much of that burden on the poor and the middle class.
Paul Ryan Is Not Honest
What this all means is that the $400,000 number may not be right, but the idea behind it is. Ryan’s new budget (just like his old budgets) involve either (1) raising taxes on the poor to lower taxes on the rich; or (2) exploding the deficit to lower taxes on the rich. Whatever else Ryan’s budget does, its primary concern is to lower taxes on the rich. This is what we get from the original report and the subsequent articles by Steve Benen, Greg Sargent, and Matt Yglesias. What’s the big deal?
Freedom to Overpay for Healthcare: Andrew Sullivan vs Ezra Klein (24 Apr)
Back during the end of the Bush administration, Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein got into a bit of a pissing contest and I think it bears discussion. Klein wrote an article where he praised (at least) the efficiency of the United Kingdom’s actual socialized medical system (the doctors work for the government). I’m sorry to say that I haven’t been able to find the link to it because neither Klein nor Sullivan linked to the original article. It doesn’t really matter.
Sullivan Is a Conservative Because of the British National Health Service
Sullivan, who is originally from the UK, shot back, “One reason I’m a conservative is the British National Health Service. Until you have lived under socialism, it sounds like a great idea.”
He goes on to note that it isn’t that bad. But, “I prefer freedom and the market to rationalism and the collective. That’s why I live here.” That doesn’t sound so bad. It’s a typical argument that you hear in favor of the broken American healthcare system. But wait.
Sullivan: Defender of the Rich
Sullivan had been the wunderkind editor of The New Republic (where he more or less destroyed the reputation of a once great magazine). And then after that, he was a much in demand writer. In other words, he was making a lot of money.
So of course he would love the system here. In fact, if he were in the United Kingdom, I’m sure he would love the private medicine he could purchase there. This is the Dick Cheney Effect: rich people get great healthcare wherever they are.
The Rich Get Great Healthcare Wherever They Are
The question is not ever, “What is the best healthcare system for people with loads of money?” We don’t decide that the best approach to car insurance is to have every driver put a cool million in a bank account against the threat of an accident. Why not? That’s a great idea for the rich. But it doesn’t work for the rest of us.
And that is a big part of the problem with income inequality. As economies become more unequal, the rich become more powerful and the government attends more and more to the needs of the one part of the society that doesn’t need taking care of: the rich.
Sullivan’s Point: The Rich Can Get Great Healthcare Here Like Everywhere Else
What exactly is Sullivan’s point? It is the same as every fool who says, “America has the best healthcare system in the world!” What they mean is that you can get the best healthcare here if you are able to pay for it.
That is pretty much true in any country you can name. For the rest of us, it isn’t that way. And Klein demolishes Sullivan on that point. He presents surveys of actual healthcare users and finds that people with socialized medicine and single-payer (government) insurance like their systems far more than Americans like their “freedom.”
Sullivan Can Get What He Wants Anywhere — He Had No Argument to Begin With
Sullivan can love the “freedom” to pay twice as much for his healthcare as the rest of the advanced world. But the rest of us would like a system that actually works.
Why is Ezra Klein Helping Republicans? (28 Apr)
Yesterday, Digby asked a sensible question. Why do pundits simultaneously claim that Republicans are more radical than ever but then say that soon they will embrace, for example, Obamacare? She quotes two articles by Ezra Klein — one from last week and another from a few years ago — about how the Republicans would react to the new healthcare law. In both cases, Klein claims that by embracing Obamacare, the Republicans can at least weaken Medicaid and Medicare.
The New Republican Party Is Always About to Appear
I think her point is that Klein will always think that the new reasonable Republican Party is just over the horizon. I’m sure that as usual, she’s right about that. But I think there is something else going on here that is much more troubling. Klein’s argument is that Obamacare has effectively reformed our normal healthcare system by privatizing it. It is built on the highly questionable idea that through the magic of the healthcare exchanges we will see great cost savings. If this turns out to be the case, then the Republicans can argue that we should do the same thing for seniors. No more Medicare, vouchers for everyone!
But why is Klein even arguing this? To begin with, the exchanges probably won’t save that much money. And regardless, when it comes to seniors, it is unlikely that they are going to save the kind of money that the huge buying power of Medicare saves. I think that Klein likes the idea of the at best middling Obamacare being used for everyone in America. It isn’t that Klein isn’t liberal — in general, he is. But more than that, he is a wonk who prides himself on being driven by facts. So he’s first a wonk and second a liberal.
Liberalism Already Uses the Best Policies
The problem is that liberalism is already driven by facts. As Dean Baker is fond of pointing out: liberal policies happen to be the best policies. We aren’t for single payer healthcare because we just love the idea of government control. We are for it because it works the best. Look at Europe: the more free market based a country’s healthcare system, the more expensive it is. Klein’s idea is too clever by half. But I think his thought is only to trick the Republicans into accepting their own healthcare reform idea. This is the same failed approach that got us Obamacare in the first place.
The proper way to get Republicans to accept Obamacare was to offer them a single payer system in the first place. That is, after all, the only reason that the Heritage Foundation came up with it: they were afraid the Democrats would offer an actual liberal proposal and they would have nothing to counter it with. Of course the moment the Democrats embraced it, they disowned it. Their point is to do nothing and if that isn’t possible, do very little. Ezra Klein’s idea is even more idiotic than Obamacare itself was. Give the Republicans ideas on how they can use their own healthcare policy to further weaken the social safety net. Maybe Klein should run for Congress.
Ezra Klein’s Pollyanna Act (22 May)
This morning, The Washington Post’s own Pollyanna, Ezra Klein cautiously asked, A Thaw in the Senate? He claimed that two “remarkable” things happened yesterday. I am not so sanguine.
Two “Remarkable” Things
Remarkable Thing Number One: the immigration bill came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a vote of 13-5. Let’s see now. The Republicans still voted against this watered down, endless road to citizenship with countless conservative sweeteners. Only slightly more than one-third of them voted for it. And this is the bill that Republican strategists claim is very important for the Republican Party going forward. Sure, 3 out of 8 is better than the usual 0 out of 8. But I don’t see this as a sea change.
Remarkable Things Number Two: John McCain and Susan Collins have called their caucus out for filibustering the Senate budget. First, the House demanded that the Senate pass a budget. When the Senate managed to do that, the minority stopped it from going to conference with the House of Representatives. I really don’t get this. The House is more conservative than the Senate. Why do the Senate Republicans think they have to stop a conference? Regardless, the fact that two “reasonable” Republicans push back on this one issue means very little.
Same as It Ever Was
This is especially true when you consider that McCain and Collins have been completely on board with the Republican “filibuster everything” strategy. What’s more, there are almost always a few Republican defectors on any but the most controversial issues and nominees. So I can’t see this as movement so much as business as usual. The McCain and Collins brands depend upon them seeming more reasonable than the rest of their caucus. Their complaints are not going to change Cruz, Paul, McConnell, and the rest of the Senate Republican caucus.
I realize that everyone (Including me!) would like to see things improve in Congress. But articles like this are really part of the problem. Giving credit for change when nothing has changed is its own kind of false equivalence. All Klein has offered us is yet another “Look at those reasonable Republicans!” article. But that’s not what the data indicate. He should be writing, “McCain and Collins most reasonable Senate Republicans since Snowe left.” And that means things are actually worse than ever.
Recently, Ezra Klein has been on a tear over at Wonk Blog, arguing that the effect of money in politics is overblown. He’s been getting a lot of push back on this, and today he answered his critics. Mostly, the article was kind of a retreat. All of the points he made were minor, because I think that he knows that his recent articles were more provocation than anything.
Ezra’s First Bad Argument
His first article was something we hear all the time: money didn’t seem to play much of a role in the 2012 presidential election. Therefore, it isn’t that important an issue.
The problem with this argument is that presidential elections, as you might have noticed, are not typical. The Democrat, especially if he is the incumbent, will have little trouble reaching parity with the Republican. The problem is with the down-ballot races. And the lower down you go the worse it gets.
Money’s Effect Is Indirect
But Klein discussed a related subject that I quite agree with: I don’t think money is that important directly.
The truth is that most people are consistent voters. I have long argued that rather than worrying about advertising, liberal politicians should just worry about getting out the vote. Because when large numbers of people vote, we win. It’s as simple as that. Now, advertising can affect how excited voters are about an election. But I think that’s minor.
Money Affects Media Coverage
What advertising really does is affect how the media covers a candidate.
Remember Ross Perot? Why was he given a spot at the presidential debates? Officially it was because his poll numbers were above some set level. Of course, the number was set so as to allow him (and no other third party candidates) into the debate.
Regardless, his numbers were relatively high because the media treated him as though he were viable. And the media treated him that way because he was a billionaire. That’s how money affects politics.
So Why Do Politicians Spend So Much Time Getting Money?
Of course, none of this explains why sitting senators and representatives spend most of their time dialing for dollars. These people will be treated as real candidates.
Klein posits that this is all about control. For the year and a half after an election, representatives could skate on the money grabbing and, I don’t know, legislate. But they worry about re-election and one of the few things they can control is raising money.
Ezra’s Second Bad Argument
His second article argued that small dollar donors tend to be more ideological than the big dollar ones. This turns out to be factually true, but it entirely misses the point.
People should give money to candidates for ideological reasons. What’s killing us is the pseudo-quid pro quo of campaign donations. It is one thing to say, “I’m giving you $10 because I stand with you on abortion.” It is quite another to say, “I’m giving you $10,000 because I want my land re-zoned.”
Klein claims that this ideological giving leads to polarization. I’m not sure that’s true, but even if it is, I don’t see polarization as necessarily being a bad thing. It is only Washington centrists who think that the center is not ideological.
How Money Really Hurts Our Political System
The truth is that money poisons our political system in two ways. It leads directly to corruption. It also leads indirectly to representatives focusing on something other than their actual voting constituencies.
Klein’s arguments strike me as missing these main points. The fact that there are two political parties who more or less split the vote is not an indication that money hasn’t corrupted the process. In a two party system, that will always happen.
The question is whether the two political parties actually represent the two sides of the debate as seen by the people. On economic issues, they do not. And as for polarization, that just isn’t an issue.
All Still Doing Bad, Especially the Poor (31 May)
Ezra Klein presented some bad news this morning. Before the financial crisis, Americans had a total worth of $67.4 trillion. And as of the end of last year, this number had shrunk to $66.1 trillion. Given that the wealth trough was in 2009 at $52.4 trillion, Americans have made up 91% of their losses.
There’s More Wealth, But…
That sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t include inflation and population growth. The St Louis Federal Reserve (pdf) did the calculation and found that we have instead only made up 45% of these losses.
But it’s worse even than that! Most of the wealth gains have gone to the wealthy. For example, the top 10% of income earners own 80% of the stocks. So we must consider the effects of inequality on the recovery.
Ezra Klein does not even estimate what this might mean for regular people. That’s why you read me, right?
How Much People Have Recouped From the Crash
I’ve done a back of the envelope calculation. In it, I look at the wealth distribution then and now. The bottom 90% had about 27% of the wealth in 2007 before the crisis, but they only have 23% now. I assumed the 23% number for the peak of the crisis (2009), but using the other doesn’t change the overall results.
This gave me the percent change in wealth regained since the crisis. The top 10% have actually gained 18% more than they lost; the bottom 90% have only gained back 52% of the wealth they lost. Scaled for inflation and population, the top 10% have gained back 54% of their losses while the bottom 90% have gained back 23% of theirs.
Bottom 90 Percent
Top 10 Percent
The More Unequal You Started, the More Unequal the Recovery
Remember, these numbers are ballpark. But they provide a basic understanding of the recovery thus far: the rich are doing far better than the poor. But it is important to remember that inequality exists at all levels. The further you go up the income scale, the more extreme it becomes. So if I had done this calculation with the top 5%, we would find that they have gotten a lot more of their wealth back than 54%. And so on for the top 1% and top 0.1% most especially the top 0.01%.
That’s also true in the other direction: the poorer you started, the worse you are doing. If you are in the bottom 10 percent, it is almost certainly true that the amount you have recouped is negative.
Four Years Later We Are Not Doing Well
So we are most definitely not doing well. The country is still suffering from the housing bubble and financial crisis. Meanwhile, conservatives want to take food away from poor kids. Brilliant.
Facts Have Not Changed Regarding Budget (6 Jun)
This morning, Ezra Klein tells us that both sides do it. He notes that the budget deficit has been greatly reduced and yet the Republicans are pushing even harder for cutting the budgets. And in a little bit of false equivalence, he says that the Democrats are doing the same thing by not coming to terms with the Sequester.
I think he’s stretching here. The Republicans have had years to adjust to falling deficits and the Democrats have had just two months from the very beginning of the Sequester.
Republicans Are Disingenuous About Budget
I think there are larger issues here. For Republicans, the budget deficit has never been about debt. As I’ve written about many times, the Republican “solution” to the federal debt always happens to be… Just what they want to do anyway! Their budget-cutting plans always start with budget-busting tax cuts that favor the rich.
These are the least stimulative kinds of tax cuts, so it is absurd to think that the stimulus of the tax cuts will offset the austerity in the program cuts. As for those cuts, they are designed to hurt non-Republican constituencies and exempt loyal conservative voters like current retirees.
Ezra Klein Is Disingenuous About Republicans
So Klein is wrong to claim that the facts have changed but the Republican policies have not. Paul Ryan’s budget is not meant to deal with government debt. And it never was! What’s more, Ezra Klein knows it.
It doesn’t make sense to pretend that it is otherwise. As an ideological matter, Republicans want to benefit the wealthy and hurt the poor. Nothing has changed to make that belief more or less valid.
Confused on the Sequester
As for the Democrats on the Sequester, he is similarly confused. There were two aspects of this policy that the Democrats attacked. First is that it would hurt a lot of people — especially poor people. Second, it would hurt the recovery. Both of those things are true.
Now Klein thinks that Democrats should just accept these cuts because the Republicans seem to be fine with them. He argues that they should work with the Republicans to make the cuts less blunt. That is probably a good idea. However, there is still a vocal minority in the Republican Party who want to make a deal to get rid of the spending cuts, so I don’t see the fact that Democrats have yet to give up on this point as an indication that they aren’t responding to new facts.
Ezra Klein Wish Things Had Changed — They Haven’t
The fundamental issue here is that conservatives and liberals see the world differently. In conservative-world, the rich can’t create jobs because their taxes are too high and anyway, the poor would get jobs if we just stopped coddling them. In liberal-world, the poor can’t get jobs because not enough spending is going on to create jobs. To the Republicans, it is all about supply. To the Democrats, it is all about demand. I think the Democrats are a lot clearer on why they do things.
But it is no secret what is driving both groups. And the facts haven’t changed the basic dynamic. Ezra Klein just wants to pretend that they have.
It’s kind of strange, but but all the stuff I wrote about Ezra Klein in 2014 was used for all the more important material I wrote at the beginning of this article. I think it must have been that I spent a lot of time writing about him in 2012 and 2013. And in 2014, I felt like I had figured him out. So I wrote four or five big, perhaps insightful articles about him. And then I pretty much stopped writing about him. I don’t think he ever noticed.
So since I have nothing to put here, I’ll provide you with this big image of Ezra Klein from Vox.com, which I am using under Fair Use. Because really, what is this whole article but an advertisement for Klein’s most recent venture. Plus: aren’t those wiskers adorable? You can almost convince yourself that he’s over 12-years-old!
Yes, the Top 1 Percent Will Own More than Bottom 99 Percent (22 Jan)
Ezra, Ezra, Ezra. Do I have to point out the obvious: Ezra Klein is not Christopher Hitchens.
If you are going to do the contrarian act, you need to be able to brush aside details and paint with a very broad brush. Klein doesn’t do this. And that’s good. There is a reason that I still read him and gave up on Hitchens long before he died.
But the article was worse than just being lost in details. Those details actually serve as a kind of apologia. So let’s be clear: the statement is true. Soon, the top one percent will own more than the bottom 99 percent. But Klein’s article is good in that it explains exactly what this means. And this is probably a good thing, because most people do tend to think that how wealthy people are is dependent upon how much stuff they have (including stuff like cash). But the statistic is actually about net worth. And note: when I first heard it, I knew that was what it was about!
Net Worth vs “Stuff”
Let me explain it with my favorite example: me. I have several computers, books, and always enough to eat. But my net worth is negative: I owe more than I own. So I am poorer than a newborn baby. Or more to the point, I am poorer than a subsistence farmer in India. Klein is correct in noting that this definition of poverty is madness. From a worldwide perspective, my life is indeed good.
Bad Journelists Cherry Pick. Et tu, Ezra?
Where Klein goes wrong is to cherry pick these kinds of examples. You see, while it is true that I am richer than the Indian farmer, I am still very clearly in the bottom 99 percent of the world. So this statistic is not skewing the data in that way. What’s more, I know very well that my indebtedness really does harm me in an economic sense.
But Klein tried to obscure this by noting that a doctor just out of medical school would be greatly indebted and thus poor. But how long is this doctor going to stay in that state of negative net worth? Not long. It’s kind of like saying, “This statistic is meaningless because, as we saw in Slumdog Millionaire, a poor person could suddenly become rich!”
But Even Klein Has to Admit the Obvious
The article did end by noting the obvious: wealth inequality is huge within countries and especially worldwide. He quoted Anthony Shorrocks, “What is unquestionably true is that wealth inequality is very high. Any reasonable assessment would show the top one percent with a minimum of 40 percent of the world’s wealth.”
Note, that’s not saying, “The top one percent has as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent.” I don’t know exactly, but I’m sure it is saying at least this much, “The top one percent has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.”
From Contrary to Disingenuous
I think it is disingenuous for Klein to end his article, “So be careful with that Oxfam statistic. It’s not telling you what you think it is. But it’s still telling you something.” It isn’t telling us something; it is telling us a whole lot. There is literally no way to do such a calculation that wouldn’t be open to criticism. What is unquestionable true is that wealth inequality is immorally high.
The R-Word We Are Too Polite to Use (24 Feb)
Charlie Pierce has this sentence that he uses all the time, “It’s not about race because it’s never about race.” It’s true. In “polite” society — the mainstream press — we are never allowed to discuss racism. Well, we are — but only when it is explicit racism of the 1960s variety. If someone uses the n-word or wants to “tell you one more thing I know about the negro,” then we are able to talk to racism. But otherwise, it is taboo. There are two ways to deal with racism in a society. You can face it and hopefully grow beyond it. Or you can pretend that it doesn’t exist, which works really well for racists because it means that we will never grow beyond it.
It All Starts With Rudy
The thing with Rudy Giuliani was clearly racist — although as I discussed before, not just racist. But the media are not very inclined to call it such. Although he was talking about something else, Martin Longman brought my attention to a great example of this by Alexandra Jaffe at CNN. She doesn’t mention racism, using the cover of horse race politics:
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s comments that he doesn’t think President Barack Obama “loves America” have put potential Republican presidential contenders in a bind, caught between a desire to criticize the President and the need to respect the office of the presidency.
But it doesn’t even work there. If there is a bind for the Republican presidential contenders, it has nothing to do with the need to respect the office of the president. It is that what Giuliani said was racist. If they back him up, they will be saying something racist too. The whole point of his discursion was that Obama is something foreign and “other.” He wasn’t raised the way the rest of us were. This is why Scott Walker can’t say for sure if Obama is Christian.
Enter Ezra to Muddle Things Up
Ezra Klein wrote a fascinating article that explains the issue at the same time that it demonstrates it, Obama Derangement Syndrome. He powerfully shows that while liberals may have suffered from a Bush Derangement Syndrome, it had to do with policies — most especially the policy of invading Iraq under false pretenses. It made sense that people would want to find some hidden meaning for an action that so clearly had no public meaning. But as Klein noted, “Obama Derangement Syndrome is different. It isn’t so much paranoia about President Obama’s policies as it is paranoia about the man himself — that he is, in some fundamental way, different, foreign, untrustworthy, even traitorous.”
It’s not like they don’t have their reasons. Klein again, “It’s about his blackness, his father’s foreignness, his strange name, his radical pastor.” But let’s be clear that three of those four things don’t matter: Obama’s father’s nationality, his not calling himself “Barry,” and his marginal relationship with Jeremiah Wright, who isn’t as outrageous as many claim. The only reasons that those three are a big deal in conservative circles is because of the first: he’s “black.”
It’s Racism, Stupid!
You see this everywhere. It is just the default. If you ask a regular Fox News viewer if Obama was born in the United States, a shocking number (28%) will say that they know he wasn’t. But an equally shocking number (38%) will tell you that they don’t know. And if you talk to them (and I have), they will tell you that they aren’t saying that he wasn’t — just that they don’t know. But the fact that the question never came up for Bush Jr, Clinton, Bush Sr, Reagan, Carter, or any other president in history says something. And what it says is that there are a lot of racists out there who don’t think that African Americans are actual Americans.
But it is curious that Ezra Klein ends his article in this way:
If it’s really true that Obama doesn’t love this country, if it’s really true that his birth was a conspiracy and his ideology is baroque, foreign, and hateful, then the discomfort some Americans feel when they look at Obama is justified — it’s a kind of patriotic spidey-sense. The alternative explanation — the one that looks at why Obama makes some Americans so much more uncomfortable than, say, Joe Biden — requires a much harder conversation.
In a similarly insightful article last week, Jonathan Chait wrote, If Giuliani’s Obama Smear Wasn’t Racist, What Was It? But other than complaining about liberals who want to see racism behind every vile thing conservatives say, and the fact that Dinesh D’Souza is a racist, Chait too isn’t willing to come out and call Giuliani a racist. He too ended his article with an entreaty for the reader to decide for herself:
Any attempt to salvage an idea from Giuliani’s gaseous smear invariably fails. His dark insinuation that this liberal Democratic president hates America in a way unlike other Democratic presidents is under-girded by nothing but a generalized suspicion neither he nor his supporters can define.
It Ain’t Just Ezra
What this all means is that the conservatives have won. Both Ezra Klein and Jonathan Chait have been driven to the point where they don’t even want to put a name to the behavior. It’s like they are in a room where people are complaining about the bad smell. And these pundits walk in a tight circle around a fresh pile of dog dung. They point at it and say, “Maybe it’s something on the floor that smells bad.” But we mustn’t name it, because then people get angry. And we must never point out the dog that made the room stink.
Update (24 February 2015 1:24 pm)
Larry Wilmore was willing to come out and call Rudy Giuliani’s comment racist on last night’s The Nightly Show. The woman on the panel was just terrible — simply repeating tired Republican talking points. The show needs to find better conservatives to bring on. This is the biggest problem with the show right now. Also, Wilmore needs to learn how to control the conversation so that the “contrary” panelist doesn’t monopolize the conversation as happened last night and before with the anti-vaccine guest — but generally. Last night, Frank Rich got to say almost nothing on the show. That was sad.
Obama Wasn’t Kidding at Correspondents’ Dinner (30 Apr)
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner has become a strange event. It is, ostensibly, an evening when the president and the press can come together to share a few lighthearted laughs. But it’s evolved into a recital of brutal truths — albeit one neither side ever really admits happened.
The joke of President Obama’s performance on Saturday was that he wasn’t joking. Everyone just had to pretend he was…
So the joke here was that Obama is so angry about the Republican Party’s climate denialism that he even managed to scare his anger translator. This isn’t a joke. It’s just Obama’s opinion, delivered with a fury that’s rarely allowed in American politics.
Read these sentences again: “Every serious scientist says we need to act. The Pentagon says it’s a national security risk. Miami floods on a sunny day, and instead of doing anything about it, we’ve got elected officials throwing snowballs in the Senate!” Is there a single one of them that you think Obama doesn’t believe? He gets right up to the first syllable of calling it “bullshit.” But since he said it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he can just say he’s kidding, even though everyone knows he’s not kidding in the least.
To paraphrase Bruce Banner, Obama’s secret is he’s always angry, at least about this stuff — but the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the only weekend of the year in which he’s allowed to show it, because the press has promised, for that one day of the year, to pretend they didn’t notice.
The problems with the war in Iraq went much deeper than the intelligence. Even if the information about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs had been correct, there’s little reason to believe he posed a threat to the United States so severe and immediate that it required a full-scale, US-led invasion. After all, Saddam’s earlier efforts at weapons of mass destruction had clearly been developed with an eye primarily toward Iran, his neighbor and rival.
More “Informed” Voters Not Necessarily Better (9 Jun)
Back in 2009, I was having dinner with my father and his girlfriend. My father is very conservative, but he has gotten less so over the years. This girlfriend was a political extremist of the Glenn Beck variety. We were talking about about the budget deficit, and I off hand mentioned the balanced budget in the late 1990s and how it was due to a really good economy. They were both stunned: they had no idea what I was talking about. They did not know that for the years 1998 through 2001, the federal government was running surpluses. This is from people watching ostensible political news for eight hours per day.
People Have Better Things to Do Than Follow Politics
I don’t bring this up to rag on my elders. For one thing, my father was working very hard in the late 1990s trying to make up for a previous financial calamity. I get the fact that people don’t pay close attention to the news — even something so widely reported as the balanced federal budget. But the key here is that both my father and his girlfriend were convinced that they were extremely well informed. They were the typical conservatives of the “Most voters don’t know a damned thing!” variety. Such people always think that they are unique in studying their ballots and generally assume that they vote for the common good unlike those other people who just vote for their own self-interest. (See, for example, Romney whining about losing the 2012 election because Obama promised his voters things, without realizing that he did the same thing to at least the same extent.)
Last week, I wrote about Daniel Foster of National Review, Conservative Response to Automatic Voter Registration. I’m sure that Foster is very well informed. But his argument was that making voting easier is not good because it just draws in less informed voters. But obviously, if those “informed voters” are going to be like my father and his girlfriend, we are best off diluting such “information” with a healthy dose of ignorance. Let’s think about how people approach voting.
In my experience, all voters take the process seriously. They go over the voter’s pamphlet. They at least scan the arguments. For people who don’t know anything about politics, this is a reasonably objective way to come to a decision. Contrast that to hardcore partisans: they approach the process with priors that make their decisions less objective in the sense that they they have likely been fed a steady diet of misinformation. That can be true of liberals — and I certainly find a lot of nonsense coming out of the mouths of my fellow liberals. But the problem just isn’t anywhere near as bad as it is for conservatives — probably because of Fox News and all the right wing radio ranters.
Ezra Klein Makes a Good Point
Ezra Klein wrote a great article at Vox Monday morning, Why the Most Informed Voters Are Often the Most Badly Misled. He focused on the work of Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels, who showed how having more information doesn’t necessarily make one more knowledgeable. The reason is because we don’t get political inform directly; we get it second hand and so depend upon those sources to tell us the truth. Sadly, even when they do, it is usually an incomplete and distorted truth.
Looking at the 1996 election, for instance, Achens and Bartels studied whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge.
It gets worse: Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge — which suggests that at least some of what we learn as we become more politically informed is how to mask our partisanship by spouting things that sound that like facts, but often aren’t…
Similar experiments have shown similar self-deception among Democrats when the questions favor Republican ideas or politicians. Achens and Bartels’s conclusion is grim: much of what looks like learning in American politics is actually, they argue, an elaborate performance of justifying the beliefs we already hold. “Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize.”
Klein used a great example to explain how this works: 9/11 truthers. These are people who believe that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, or otherwise not what they appear to be. If you have ever had the misfortune to get into a discussion of the issue with a truther, you will find that they have enormous pools of esoteric knowledge. But that knowledge is finely crafted only to make the case that all was not what it seemed on 11 September 2001. The same is true of Bigfoot, Sigmund the Sea Monster, and politics.
None of this should be taken as some kind of false equivalence. In general, I find that liberals are under-informed whereas conservatives are misinformed. But my point here is not about placing blame. Rather, it is just to say that the argument that voting should be difficult because it keeps out the uninformed, is just an elitist argument that doesn’t make rational sense. In fact, that argument is part of the same process. Daniel Foster is making it because he knows that more people voting will be bad for his conservative cause.
Media Should Not Guess Voter Reactions (27 Sep)
There’s a deep tension in the way the media judges presidential debates. On the one hand, we know that our coverage affects the public’s ultimate view of the event — in that way, we are key participants in the debate, not merely observers of it.
But that knowledge is uncomfortable. It’s not the role we are meant to play. The press wants to reflect reality, not shape it.
And so we attempt, peculiarly, to recast ourselves as observers of voter reactions we can’t observe. We judge the debate based not on what we think to be true about it but on what we think the public will think to be true about it. And so we end up asking not whether the candidates made good arguments given what we know to be true but whether they made good arguments given what we imagine voters know to be true. And once you’re in that mindset, a section where Trump sounded good can be a win even if nothing he said made sense — after all, fairly few voters are trade policy or labor market experts.
But the public isn’t relying on us to tell them what we thought they thought watching the debate. They’re relying on us to tell them what we found when we compared the candidates’ answers to reality, and to the best analysis on offer from experts, so they can make a better-informed judgment on what actually happened in the debate. And sometimes there’s a very big gap between how good a candidate’s answers sounded and how good his or her answers actually were.
That’s the case for Trump’s opening section last night. He was speaking on the issues where he’s supposed to be strongest — his whole pitch is he’s a businessman who knows how the economy really works and what is really needed to fix it — and he showed he didn’t have any real idea what he was talking about. Voters deserve to know that.
Republicans Don’t Care About Debt: Part Umpteenth (28 Dec)
We are about to learn whether Republicans are more addicted to power or to ideas. This is, it’s worth noting, a live debate. In the Bush years, the GOP cut taxes, expanded Medicare, and started two wars without paying for a dime of it. Then after Barack Obama took office, Republicans became very worried about budget discipline.
Fiscal conservatism, liberals complained, seemed to mean Republicans could rack up debt for any reason while Democrats couldn’t even borrow to save the economy during a financial collapse (which is, for the record, exactly the time you would want to debt finance).
But the GOP swore otherwise. The Tea Party, they said, was a correction to the regrettable excesses of the aughts. Bush-era Republicans had gone Washington and become addicted to power rather than conservatism. They had betrayed their own ideas and were now being punished by their own voters. It wouldn’t happen again. The opposition to Obama’s debt financing was the principled stand of a chastened GOP, not a cynical ploy to trip up a Democratic president.
If House Republicans — and particularly the House Freedom Caucus, the most debt-obsessed of all House Republicans — decide that Trump only needs to pay half the cost of his plans [which is what they now say], then there’ll be no more mystery. Partisanship and power, not ideas and ideology, will have proven the GOP’s real addiction.
In 1972… George McGovern won the Democratic primary even though much of the Democratic Party viewed him with suspicion and even fear. Major Democratic interest groups, like the AFL-CIO, refused to endorse him in the general election, and top Democrats, including former governors of Florida, Texas, and Virginia, organized “Democrats for Nixon.” McGovern went on to lose with less than 40 percent of the vote, a dismal showing driven by Democrats who abandoned a nominee they considered unacceptable.
A similar path was possible for Trump. Elites within the Republican Party viewed him with horror. His primary opponents spoke of him in apocalyptic terms. Ted Cruz called Trump a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” Rick Perry said Trump’s candidacy was “a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.” Rand Paul said Trump is “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag. A speck of dirt is way more qualified to be president.” Marco Rubio called him “dangerous,” and warned that we should not hand “the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual.”
And then every single one of those Republicans endorsed Trump. Ted Cruz told Americans to vote for the pathological liar. Rand Paul backed the delusional narcissist. Marco Rubio campaigned to hand the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual. Rick Perry urged people to elect the cancer on conservatism, and today he is preparing to serve as its secretary of energy…
With this kind of elite consolidation, it’s little wonder that Trump managed to consolidate Republican-leaning voters behind him. The final NBC/WSJ poll of the election found that 82 percent of likely Republican voters were supporting Trump — precisely matching the 82 percent of likely Democratic voters supporting Clinton. Trump did not get McGoverned.
AHCA Does None of the Things Trump Says It Does (18 Mar)
On March 8, Trump laid out his case for the American Health Care Act. Here’s what he said:
It follows the guidelines I laid out in my congressional address: a plan that will lower costs, expand choices, increase competition, and ensure health care access for all Americans. This will be a plan where you can choose your doctor. This will be a plan where you can choose your plan.
These talking points are familiar enough that it’s easy to let them fade into the background. But it’s worth taking them seriously. This is Trump’s case for the bill he’s backing. Does he know that literally every single one of these points is wrong?
The AHCA doesn’t lower costs. Apples to apples, the Brookings Institution estimates “that premiums would be 13% (~$1,000) higher under the AHCA than under current law, holding plan generosity and the individual market age distribution fixed at their current law levels.” To the extent that the AHCA sees lower premiums, it’s because older people can’t afford care and younger people buy sparer plans. That is no one’s idea of lowering costs.
The rest of the problems flow from there. Most people will have fewer affordable choices under the AHCA because their subsidies will be so much smaller (and many people will have no affordable choice at all, and so will go uninsured). Competition is likely to fall as the marketplaces shrink — fewer consumers wielding smaller tax credits will not prove an attractive market to insurers.
The idea that the AHCA will “ensure health care access for all Americans” is sufficiently absurd that I’m not even going to spend time on it.
But the idea that it will let you choose your doctor and plan is more interesting — it seems entirely possible to me that Trump doesn’t realize the limited choices people complain about in Obamacare are the result of people being unable to afford more generous plans with broader networks, and it seems likely to me that he doesn’t know the AHCA will make that problem worse, or why conservative health reformers think that’s a good thing.
The American Health Care Act failed because it was a terrible piece of legislation. It would have thrown 24 million people off insurance and raised deductibles for millions more — and the savings would’ve gone to pay for tax cuts for millionaires. It broke virtually all of Donald Trump’s campaign promises, and was opposed not just by Democrats but also by Republicans. …
This is a failure for Speaker Paul Ryan on many levels. He wrote this bill, and when the speaker takes over the process like that, the upside is it’s supposed to create legislation that can pass. On this most basic task, Ryan failed, and failed spectacularly.
Some legislation fails even though the party faithful love it. For the Democrats, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill was like that — it went nowhere in the Senate, but liberals appreciated that Nancy Pelosi tried. The American Health Care Act wasn’t like that. Republicans were glad to see it die.
But beyond the legislative and tactical deficiencies, the AHCA reflected a deeper failure of moral and policy imagination. Ryan spent the latter half of Barack Obama’s presidency promising to repair the Republican Party’s relationship with the poor (remember Ryan’s “poverty tour”?). He’s spent every day since the passage of Obamacare saying the Republicans could do better. This is what he came up with? The GOP put their greatest policy mind in charge of the House of Representatives and they got… this?
Trump’s Incompetence, Prevailed in Election, Is Destroying Him as President (30 Mar)
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump broke every rule of politics — and he won anyway.
He dominated the Republican primary by running against the Republican Party. He repulsed the GOP’s key leaders and emerged all the stronger for it. He delighted in conspiracy theories and schoolyard insults. He contradicted himself routinely, but managed to sell his flip-flops as evidence of pragmatism rather than proof of dishonesty. He knew nothing about policy, didn’t bother to learn more, and profited from the uncertainty about his true positions. His campaign was clearly assisted by Russian hackers, but the story was overwhelmed by the obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails.
And then, of course, there was the election itself — Trump trailed in the polls, barely built a field operation, lost the popular vote, and then won the presidency.
Like many who covered Trump, I found it hard, after all this, to predict the likely path of his presidency. Perhaps he could defy every norm and succeed there too. But with every day that passes, Trump is looking more bound by the political system he promised to upend. The outcomes we’re seeing look like what you’d expect from an inexperienced, unfocused president who’s more interested in tweeting out cable news commentary than learning about the government he runs and the policies he wants to change. Merely 10 weeks into his term, the processes, skills, and institutions Trump flouted as a candidate are breaking him as a president.
Here, in truth, is where the past few years have left us. The minority party no longer holds a scintilla of power over Supreme Court picks. The majority party can and will jam whomever they want onto the Court, where that person will serve for life. But in times when the Senate and the White House are controlled by different parties — which happens fairly often — there’s almost no chance that any seat on the Court will be filled.
This is an insane way to manage one of the most powerful institutions in American life. But the decorous, gentle equilibrium of yesteryear was also nonsensical. There’s always been something bizarre about the idea that a position as important, as long-serving, and as irreversible as Supreme Court justice should be made based on qualifications rather than ideology.
Politics isn’t a resume competition, it’s a contest for power, and the wielding of that power has real consequences. In practice, the Supreme Court decides how elections are funded, whether abortions are legal, whether millions of people will continue to have health insurance — if elected politicians and activist groups see its composition as a matter of life and death, that’s because it often is.
That’s it folks! There are other articles where Ezra Klein plays a predominent role. But this is the article that tells you everything I know about the man and what things he thinks that I think are insightful. I hope someone finds it interesting or useful. It represents almost a hundred of articles I’ve written. At this point, it’s more useful I think.
Back in September of last year, I wrote, Hillary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders? Really?! It was about Clinton’s new book and the chapter where she complains that she lost because of Bernie Sanders. I think it’s well established that Clinton lost by such a small amount that almost anything you could mention changing would have put her in the White House.
But the truth of the matter is that Bernie Sanders was a very good surrogate for her. And in the end, as many Sanders supporters voted for her in 2016 as Clinton supporters voted for Obama in 2008. So to blame her defeat on Sanders is outrageous and makes her look small. Even though I’ve always been a Bernie Sanders supporter, I’ve also been a supporter of Hillary Clinton. And I’ve written a great deal about how from a practical standpoint — from the standpoint of getting laws actually passed — there wasn’t much difference between them.
Thoughtless Twitter Responses
But every time I publish an article, it automatically gets posted to my Twitter account. And I was none too pleased to see that I got this reply:
It is true that I mentioned Hillary Clinton’s authenticity. But I mentioned it in the same way I mentioned it regarding Al Gore. These candidates have all their advisors telling them not to be the liberals who they actually are. I was not making the argument this twitter critic thinks I was: that Sanders was the authentic liberal and Clinton was not. What’s more, that whole point was a sidenote. It wasn’t what the article was about. Vastly more time was spent ridiculing people who think they must be politically pure.
The Article Was Against Purity and Authenticity
I even wrote:
My biggest concern about Bernie Sanders winning the primary was always that the Democratic Party establishment would be more interested in tanking his campaign than in winning the election. You can look at George McGovern in this country or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. In the petty world of politics, the only things worse than your stated enemies are the people in your own party who don’t quite agree with you. Let’s call it the People’s Front of Judea theory of politics: the Republicans may be awful, but not as awful as people who disagree with you about how to provide universal healthcare.
That’s an attack on both sides: the true socialists like myself who won’t vote for the Democratic Party, and the conservative Democrats who won’t vote for a Democratic Party led by Bernie Sanders.
Most Twitter Users Don’t Read the Articles Linked
My conclusion is that the twitter critic didn’t even read my article. (I will shortly publish an article explaining in some depth based on what I know from being an internet professional and knowing the research on how people “read” things online.) But that’s between her and her conscience. I’m more interested in what she thinks she’s accomplishing. I am a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. But she just labels me “a white male” as though that means anything. That’s just an ad hominem attack that doesn’t engage at all with what I wrote about.
Is Hillary Clinton right to complain about Sanders when he was a good surrogate for her? Is she right to complain about Sanders supporters when they voted for her as much as her voters voted for Obama in 2008? The answer is clearly no.
The Deeper Issue: Political Consensus
But there is a deeper issue that I made pretty clear: Democrats should be fighting Republicans, not Democrats they disagree with slightly on the issues. And it clearly isn’t just Clinton because this twitter critic thinks it’s most important to insult me as “a white man” as if that’s going to help the liberal cause any more than Hillary Clinton is going to help it by attacking a man beloved by the vast majority of American liberals.
The truth is, I’d probably like this twitter critic, and it would probably reciprocate. But Twitter makes it so much easier to dismiss and insult me than it does to engage in a discussion. But there was a lot of discussion in the comments on the article. But comments push people to think what they want to say. And Twitter let’s you act like a teen yelling out of a passing car.
Twitter image taken from the company and licensed under Fair Use.
This article is a compilation of seven articles that I wrote about songs features in the 1990s classic film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
The film itself is charming. It is quite funny, and the denouement is just perfect with Romy and Machele standing up for the value of their own lives. But it shows all the signs of needing a few more drafts. The whole dream sequence really muddiest the film and makes the rest of it (which is fairly unbelievable) hard to believe. Still, the film is quite enjoyable, the acting is wonderful, and its ultimate message about friendship is wonderful in our postmodern world.
Since the film represents the two women’s tenth-year reunion, it requires us to take a disturbing trip into 1980s pop. It was a time of twice destroyed music. First punk became “new wave” and then it just became pop. But it’s not always so bad. I’ve tried to pick the better material.
Time After Time
We start with the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time.”
Interestingly, the song was not on the soundtrack for the film. But it is the most important song in the film. It is featured when Romy is stood up by Billy Christensen, and then it is played again when Romy, Michele, and Sandy perform their their interpretive dance number before flying away in a helicopter.
When the song was playing on the radio, I liked it quite a lot. Now it sounds dated. I can’t make out a single acoustic instrument despite the fact that it really doesn’t need any electronics at all. The song is solid, even with the cliche hook. But the drum samples and synth sounds are really not that offensive. I think that producer Rick Chertoff gets a lot of credit for creating an overall sound for the album that doesn’t make my skin crawl.
The thing that I most dislike in “Time After Time” is something I was very fond of at the time: guitar flanging. But like anything that’s interesting in pop music, it was used to death and then for a few decades more. Flanging quickly became the go-to guitar sound when a producer had no idea what to do. But it worked on this song at that time, as I recall.
But you can’t make me sit through that any more than I already have, so here is a beautiful, almost acoustic version of the song live.
What’s interesting about “Just a Girl” is that it is the perfect song for the film. Although it sounds light and pleasant, it is a highly political song. Slow it down and perform it with an acoustic guitar and you have a Natalie Merchant song. Although “Just a girl” is repeated more often, technically the refrain is, “I’ve had it up to here!” And that is, ultimately, what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is all about.
“Just a Girl” starts with what was always a curious lyric to me, “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.” Now it seems ridiculously obvious what that’s all about. The trappings of femininity are used to blind women from their subjugation. And the line is followed by a far more disturbing line, “I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise.” I see “exposed” as a synonym for “naked.” The song makes many references to the objectification of women. But it also indicates that regardless of the pink ribbons, women still know their situation on a more fundamental level.
Of course, “Just a Girl” is also exactly the kind of music that Romy and Michele would have been dancing to in the mid-1990s.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
In a sense, this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion Morning Music week has been a bust. The idea was that we would have a lot of terrible music from the 1980s, but thus far, the music has been pretty good. Today does not help matters: “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.
But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great song. But it works very well. The first part of it seems to be a very cheery celebration of being in love. The second part of it is about the volatility of love. The key line is, “Don’t get me wrong if I fall in the mode of passion.” The “mode of passion” is, put simply, lust. And the singer seems to be saying that she should be forgiven the ebb and flow of her love just as she forgives it of her lover.
Regardless of how you want to read the song, there is always something incredibly compelling about Chrissie Hynde when she’s singing something that is sweet as in perhaps my favorite Pretenders’ song, Kid. But today, it is the much more straightforward “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” It’s nice. Nothing that Elizabeth needs to be ashamed of liking. But I will search the film for something really awful. There is at least some material that is mediocre.
Oh, and regarding this video: I had never seen it before, so it’s interesting that I should have mentioned the British television series The Avengers in yesterday’s Odds and Ends post. Although I think the video matching is terrible in it. But it was doubtless state-of-the-art at the time.
Just What I Needed
I’m going to veer off the Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion soundtrack and go back almost a decade to present “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. But let’s face it: it would fit in fine in the film. And there is much to recommend it. The truth is that music hadn’t change over that period of time, although admittedly, this song sounded pretty new back in 1978.
I’ve long favored guitar focused pop music, unless you are going to do something as pretty as Breaking Us in Two (although Joe Jackson was rather good at doing guitar based songs as well). But that’s the great thing about 1978: it was still before the explosion of FM synthesizers. There’s no pretense! “Just What I Needed” is using something very much like the Minimoog. Blessed be the analog god! I also like the guitar work on it — well, the lead work, which gives me chills. The rhythm guitar is pretty standard pop-rock.
What’s problematic is the lyrics. They are entirely typical of everything Ric Ocasek would ever write. He gets a good idea and then takes it nowhere. The best example of that is My Best Friend’s Girl, an idea that is so rich with emotional potential that he mines for exactly nothing.
Similarly, “Just What I Needed” means, what? I never get the impression that Ocasek knows. I guess we are supposed to take “I needed someone to bleed” as meaningful. But all I can find in it is that the word “bleed” rhymes with “feed.” Does he mean suggest that he needed someone who loved him so much that she bled?
I’m more than willing to interpret songs. That is, after all, what the listener is supposed to do. But the songwriter has to do their part and provide something to work with. I know emotionally what’s going on here: it’s about the beginning of a relationship that is a bad idea. But none of that much matters, as it doesn’t matter in any of Ocasek’s songs, because his mastery of pop songwriting is perfect.
We Got the Beat
I think there are a couple of songs by The Go-Go’s in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But I picked “We Got the Beat” because I know it was in there and I don’t want to go back to the film and search around. Anyway, it’s an amazing, and maybe even great, song. Writing something that charmingly awkward is really hard. I can do the awkward, but certainly during the last 20 years, no one thinks what I write is charming — in fact, they can’t even bear it.
But I was wondering earlier if I considered The Go-Go’s a punk band. Being of limited skill is really not what punk is about. For example, Minutemen were amazing musicians. And overall, I don’t think The Go-Go’s were a punk band. But they definitely had those roots. You can definitely hear this on the original Stiff Records version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. The music is raw; it reminds me of early Kinks. But more than that, it pays explicit tribute to the “girl groups” of decades previous. And that is very much one kind of punk music. I would say that is ultimately what makes Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers punk.
The later recording of We Got the Beat (the one in the film) is much more polished. It’s still arguably a great tune in the tradition of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets. (According to Wikipedia, the song “evolved” from The Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go,” but I don’t especially hear it.) Regardless, it’s a fun song. But I think this earlier version is more fun because I can imagine them in Beehive hairdos. Just click “play” and close your eyes and imagine.
N-Trance’s Stayin’ Alive
Continuing our Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week, we have N-Trance’s remix, rap version of “Stayin’ Alive.” It isn’t an 80s song. It is playing at the club when Romy and Michele go out before even hearing about the reunion. But I thought I would highlight it because I hate the original song.
Look, it isn’t that I hate disco. The truth is, there was a lot of great disco. I just can’t stand that falsetto lead. It is quite a bit less annoying with the harmonies in the chorus. Also, the lyrics are ridiculous, although that’s at least true to form. The rap lyrics (by Ricardo da Force, who is also the rapper) are along the same lines, but quite a bit stronger. (Just to be clear, N-Trance is more of a music project, with two producers heading it and a floating, but dependable group of musicians helping out.)
I can’t say that I like this version of “Stayin’ Alive.” But I certainly don’t dislike it as much as I do the original. But the song works in the film, because when Romy initially has the idea that they will impress their classmates because of the cool lives they have, she isn’t wrong on the second part of that. Certainly Christie Masters-Christensen wouldn’t have been going out to clubs and listening to music that hip.
Watching a bit of the film again, I’m reminded that Mira Sorvino is so much better a dancer than Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow is amazingly stiff in all the dance numbers; she reminds me of myself! Or maybe it’s just great acting, because somehow it seems to fit her character.
Blood and Roses by The Smithereens
We will finish off this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week with The Smithereens and probably their best known song, “Blood and Roses.” It’s what I think of as “power pop,” but most people wouldn’t classify it like that. It’s very pleasant, melody-driven music with a bit more heft to it than pop normally has (or had).
The song has a very nice bass riff. And there is something very compelling about Pat DiNizio’s voice. The verse is almost modal. The interesting thing about that is I was always obsessed with that when I was writing songs in my youth. But the truth is that as a listener, at least now, it is fairly boring. I suppose what I used to like about it was its hypnotic quality. But the song breaks into a more interesting chorus.
Lyrically, there isn’t much there. But interestingly, we are back to the image of blood. Still, it’s distinctly adolescent material, “I want to live but I don’t belong.” It reminds me of a stand-up comedian I saw decades ago. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I found this poem I wrote when I was 15, ‘The moon is high; the sea is calm; I hate my parents.” Obviously “Blood and Roses” is more thoughtful, but not by a whole lot.
Just the same, it’s quite an enjoyable tune. And I suppose we can all relate to the basic idea of the death of love. Now that I think about it, the song is kind of like American Music Club’s Firefly, but from a writer who didn’t drink himself to sleep each night. That may be why “Blood and Roses” was a hit, and “Firefly” was not. But it’s still the case that American Music Club is a better band. Feel free to disagree.
Movie poster image licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia. All album cover images licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.
One of my very favorite songs is “The Girl’s on Fire.” And my favorite line in it is, “This is my darkness now, only I can see in it.” There’s a lot of meaning in that line.
It’s about pain. It’s about how no one can share your pain. We all lie to ourselves that we are part of a greater whole. But we aren’t. We are alone. We are so alone that most people won’t even allow themselves to think about it. That’s because it is so terrifying.
You Just Can’t Know My Pain, and I Can’t Yours
I spend a lot of my time as I’m waking up thinking about what it will be like to die alone. Since I don’t expect to live long and I am lucky to have a number of friends and family members who care about me, I expect that there will be people around to see me die. But they will only be spectators. It will be like a sporting event. They’ll be watching, but they won’t be on the field — in the game.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as so much an individual that no one can know what it’s like to be me. The fact is, I’m making an argument for us all. There will be no one around who truly understands your pain — or anyone’s.
“This is my darkness now, only I can see in it.” –Jules Shear
Oh certainly, we all know roughly what it is like to be dumped out of a long-term relationship. We know what it’s like to lose a job or something far less ephemeral like a child. We can all watch Love Story and sob when Ali MacGraw dies.
But we don’t know what it’s like for you. Because we aren’t you. Just as you aren’t us. Others can’t see in our Darkness and we can’t see in theirs.
The Pointlessness of Trying to “Cheer Up” Another
This is why people trying to cheer you up always works the opposite as intended. To begin with, even though you know they are trying to be helpful, they’re stealing from you. That pain belongs to you not them. And it’s pathetic too! Because they don’t know what you are feeling.
Words Don’t Help
Indeed, “cheering up” someone usually has the opposite result, because it makes the person feel even more alone. It’s like someone commiserating with you about a dear pet that just died as though you’d just lost a car. Regardless, the only thing that can be said in such a situation is a platitude that you’ve not only heard before, but have probably used. So you feel bad hearing the platitude and you feel bad knowing that you were being equally useless to another friend.
Life is hard. Don’t trivialize it with words. And good God never trivialize it with platitudes. Everyone knows them all. That’s what makes them platitudes.
The Only Relief to Your Pain
What if you can embrace your pain. I mean really do it: love your pain. Then you might have a chance. But that is a hard thing to do. And there is no one who can help you.
Otherwise, your only hope is death. And that’s not so bad. Because it comes to us all. And most of us have control over it. If the pain ever gets too bad you can kill yourself. This is a thought that cheered up Stevie Smith very much. And it cheers me up to.
That doesn’t mean you should do it. In fact, I think most people are wrong when they do it. But it’s nice to know that if things get so bad that you just can take it, you have the option.
Image of The Third Party taken from Amazon and licensed under Fair Use.
I keep hearing from Republicans that the tax cuts for middle and lower-income people will not expire. The reason is the Congress won’t let them expire because they will be so popular. I just have one question.
Why Aren’t Tax Cuts on the Rich so Great They Would Be Renewed?
If the tax cuts on capital gains are going to create so many jobs the people will love them. If the tax cuts on huge estates are going to trickle down to the poor people, then people will love them. So there should be no problem making them temporary given that they will be so popular.
In fact, the way things should go is that they should make the tax cuts for the lower classes permanent because we know they will be popular. But we don’t know that the other tax cuts will work and be popular. So it would make more sense to make them temporary. Then after 8-years we can see if the people really do love them.
Tax Cuts for the Rich Aren’t and Won’t Be Popular
We won’t do that of course. That’s because the tax cuts are only there to give money to the rich. The tax cuts to the middle and lower classes are only put in there to take pressure off the fact that the Republicans one purpose of the tax cut — Ever! — were giving huge amounts of money away to the rich.
So what is clear is that the Republicans are simply conning the American people. They know that the capital gains tax will be unpopular because it is unpopular now. They know the estate tax cut will be unpopular because it is unpopular now. They are only popular among two groups of people those who get the tax cuts and those voting for them.
The Media Used to Like Getting the Evil-Doers
The rich will be given money that they don’t need and the poor will be deprived of programs that they do need. Children will starve. This is the America we live in. Forget the American Dream, which died decades again. Now America itself has died.
What I find remarkable is that the news is not talking about this all the time. It would seem an obvious thing. The people want to hear about it when their government is conning them. Or at least the media use to like to tell the people that. That’s what made 60 Minutes the first news show to make a profit.
But now for some reason, they are afraid to tell the truth. They are afraid to anger the people with information that will make them angry. Why is that? Aren’t they still trying to sell papers and get people to watch them?
Why the Media Doesn’t Care That America Is Being Ripped Off
I have come up with a reason for why this is. The people who own the media companies are all rich and will make a huge amount of money from this tax bill. And all the reporters are in the top 20% so while they may not make as much money they’ll do very well with this tax cut bill. So why kill a good thing? Who cares about the prols? Certainly not the Republican Party and the “journalists” who cover them.
Cynicism Has Set In
But it hardly matters because everyone has just gotten to the point where they know the game is rigged against them. The rich will be given money that they don’t need and the poor will be deprived of programs that they do need. Children will starve. This is the America we live in. Forget the American Dream, which died decades again. Now America itself has died.
It’s very sad. But it’s also the sign of an Empire that is dying. So we won’t have to put up with it for very much longer.
The super-power is dead; long live the new super-power.
Image was altered from a public domain image from pxhere.
 In general, people of smaller incomes don’t notice tax cuts. A big part is that they are paid by the hour and so their paychecks change every week. When Obama gave a bigger tax cut than this one to the middle class in 2009, half a year later, over 50 percent didn’t think their taxes had changed at all, and more people thought their taxes had gone up than thought they had gone done.
A big reason for this was because the Obama administration didn’t make a big deal out of the tax cuts. They wanted people not to notice them so that they would just spend more and help restart the economy. The Republicans, of course, will be screaming about how much money they have given to the middle class. Still, I don’t think it will work. Because we just aren’t talking about that much money. They may notice them, but they’ve already been primed to respond, “Yeah, but these are temporary, and you only gave them to us so you could help out your rich friends.
Generally, people don’t notice tax cuts and they don’t reward politicians who give them out.
 For the record, I’m all for reducing the capital gains tax. But it has to go along with the elimination of loopholes. The way it works now is that the super-big corporations don’t pay the going rate — often they pay nothing at all. It is the small the medium-sized businesses that pay it. So sure: cut the capital gains rate down to 28 percent. But then make sure that Walmart is paying 28 percent every year. Instead, the publicans lowered the capital gains rate far too much and they introduced new loopholes — the worst possible thing tht could be done.
 Actually, America died the moment it became a super-power. And if not, it definitely did once it became the only super-power. November 9, 1989 — a day that will live in infamy.
In the past, I’ve written articles like, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And while I love them, no one else seems to. I figure that is because most people don’t want to listen to different versions of the same song five times in a row. But it would make a very compelling series of articles.
Born and Livin’ With The Blues
So let’s do a week of Brownie McGhee. He was a practitioner of Piedmont blues. It is a special form of guitar playing that sounds a lot like ragtime played on a guitar. The best example of the art form is probably Blind Boy Fuller. It was very big in the 1920s. After World War II it fell out of favor. But in the late 1950s, it really came back thanks to the folk revival. They really liked it for what I think are pretty obvious reasons.
I’ll have more to say about McGhee throughout the week. For now let’s just listen to one of his better known songs, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Playing with him is harmonica player Sonny Terry. I’ll have more to say about him too.
I was first introduced to Brownie McGhee in one of my favorite films, Angel Heart. In it, he plays a voodoo worshiping blues musician, Toots Sweet. He gets one of the best lines in the film, “We ain’t all Baptists down here, sonny!” He’s great in the film. It amazed me to find out that he wasn’t some old character actor. But if singing the blues doesn’t make you an actor, I don’t know what does.
In the film, we get to hear him perform the end of one of his songs, “Rainy Day.” It is a beautiful song. It’s even in the script. Harry Angel comes up to him and say, “That’s some beautiful tune you was singing there, Mr Sweet.” I’m sure you will agree:
Red River Blues and Crow Jane
Sonny Terry was blinded early on in life, and without the ability to farm, he turned to music out of desperation. At some point, he hooked up with Blind Boy Fuller. That’s pretty much being at the top of the profession. Fuller was such a great guitar player. But he died in 1941, and so Terry hooked up with Brownie McGhee. The two of them played together pretty consistently for decades until Terry died in 1986. In fact, the two of were in The Jerk together. I didn’t much like that film. But now I’m going to have to track it down, just to see them.
In the following video, we get to see the two of them do two classic blues numbers. The first is a Peg Leg Howell tune, “Red River Blues.” I must admit to finding Howell extremely uneven. And his performance of this song leaves much to be desired. But it’s a great song and McGhee and Terry do well by it. They move from it seamlessly into Skip James’ “Crow Jane.” In the latter song, Sonny Terry does some great hollering (or whatever you want to call it). You can see in this video why these two were popular: they seem like they’re having a great time and it’s infectious. This video is from the DVD Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974.
Moving on with our week of Brownie McGhee, we have another song with his longtime collaborator Sonny Terry. This one is an Elmore James song, “Stranger Blues.” Of course, it’s always hard to say who wrote what. It is an entirely standard 12-bar blues. What’s more interesting here is that it is clearly done on a television stage. It seems like someone may have had the idea of creating something like an African American Hee Haw. But actually good.
Musically, the song is interesting because of the vocal harmony during the refrain. This is the sort of thing that made people refer to McGhee and Terry as “country blues.” It works really well — gives the music that something extra. Of course, the two of them are so great, they hardly need it. I just love this stuff.
My Baby’s So Fine
Doing these posts with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are a great pleasure musically. But in terms of research, they are a real pain. I find that I spend a lot of time trying to track down just what songs they are doing. They don’t tend to do standards. Even the classics that they do are not widely known — at least to me. And then, like all great blues musicians, they make the songs their own — including by changing the lyrics.
In the following video, they do a song called, “My Baby’s So Fine.” It seems to come from an album that McGhee did with Earl Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s cousin), I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes. Although Sonny Terry’s name was not on the album, he was playing on the whole thing. And he wrote the song.
This video also includes a medley of “Poor Man” and “Fighting a Losing Battle but Having a Lot of Fun Trying to Win.” The first song I’m not sure about. The second song is written by Brownie McGhee. I suspect that the first one is too; it’s his style. Unfortunately, it gets cut off just a bit. Still, the whole video is worth listening too.
Cornbread and Peas
Here is a song that I assume was written by Sonny Terry, “Cornbread, Peas, and Black Molasses,” off California Blues. I don’t know why. It just seems like a more standard blues — although not entirely. Anyway, it is a fun little song. But if you feel you must have more today, check out their version of Randy Newman’s song Sail Away off their album, Sonny & Brownie. It’s really great! I think Arlo Guthrie is doing background vocals on it.
This video has a brief introduction to the song. I didn’t know that Brownie McGhee had suffered from polio as a child. These two were quite the pair.
A Whole Set of Brownie and Sonny
Let’s end this Brownie McGhee week with a whole set by him and Sonny Terry. Why not? It’s the weekend. You have a half hour. This is from a 1974 BBC concert. It includes just one song that I featured earlier in the week — and how could it not feature that one. It’s interesting to see how they work the audience. Clearly, it is Terry who is the extroverted of the two. And he has a stage presence that is exactly what you would expect from a lifetime of working in front of folk audiences. There’s a good deal of “joke folk” in Sonny Terry.
What’s amazing with these guys is that once they get going, it seems like a whole lot more than just two guys. Part of it is just that McGhee is an amazing guitarist. Another part is that Terry manages to move back and forth from singing and playing without missing a beat — literally! He is also a much more varied harmonica player than I’m used to. And he’s great at playing backup when that’s called for, as with, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Enjoy!
Jim Croce was the great musician of my youth. He was born in 1943. It’s hard to believe, but he was only 30 years old when he died.
He looked, and still looks like he had been beaten up by life. He was a great storyteller and that came across in his songs. I was only 9 when he died, but it was terrible. I remember my older sister calling me to tell me the news. Another one of my projects (and perhaps the one that I am most excited about) is a one-man play, “Deconstructed.” It is simply a number of deconstructions of various things. One of them is a deconstruction of Croce’s song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
It may surprise you, but I get ten minutes out of it. You see, I know every song off Croce’s three official albums by heart. I even know many of them on guitar. So I’ve thought about them in much more depth than any sane person should. And I have decided that he totally screwed up on that particular song. I’m not going to go into it. You will just have to wait until I start my tour. But if you listen to the song carefully — and I mean 100 times carefully — all will be revealed.
But see if you can find the many problems with the story that is told in the song.
That Time Jim Croce Made the First Issue of People (He Was Dead)
In 1974, the first issue of People was released. It was then referred to as People Weekly. I know that issue very well. When my parents owned a 7-11 store, my father was in the habit of grabbing of the first issues of everything that came in. That included Hustler, as I recall. But the reason that I most remember People is because it had an article in it, “Jim Croce: Million Dollar Music Legacy.” This was about 6 months after Croce had died. And people were apparently still not tired of him, given that he was a whole lot more popular after he died than before.
But the cover featured Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 filmed version of The Great Gatsby — you know: the Robert Redford one. I remember seeing it on television later and being surprised at how much my 11-year-old self liked the film. I’ve seen it since. I missed a lot when I was a kid. I don’t much care for the look of the film. But I think the movie captures the book perfectly. And Farrow was perfect as Daisy.
People Weekly: It Was All About Sex
When I was having tea with my cousin yesterday, we discussed the nature of romance and how it was doomed. Well, that was my conclusion anyway. The problem is that two people who are really compatible don’t tend to generate that romantic spark (or let’s be real: sexual) that “love” requires. The kind of person who I could stand to live with would never be the kind of person who I would be attracted to in that way. Now, it would be easy enough to just write this off as my own neurotic nature. But I’ve seen it too much in others to think that I’m not representative of the vast majority of people.
Anyway, I doubt that I’ve opened another copy of People since that first one. The only magazines I open these days have either recipes or Sudoku puzzles inside. Yes, I suppose I’m old.
Croce’s Number 1: Maury Muehleisen
Maury Muehleisen is best known as Jim Croce’s lead guitarist. In fact, Croce always toured as a duo with Muehleisen. Before that, Croce was playing guitar for Muehleisen, but after the poor sales of his first album, Gingerbreadd, that changed. Most important, Muehleisen was a huge influence on Croce’s writing. Until he started working with Muehleisen, Croce wrote pretty standard, three chord, folk songs. Muehleisen taught him a more sophisticated approach to composition — with leading tones and jazz chords. The results are striking. Just check out the album, The Faces I’ve Been. Compare the writing before and after Muehleisen showed up on the scene.
Here are a couple of Muehleisen songs. The first is “I Remember Mary,” which was the first song of his I had ever heard him sing. (I had, of course, heard Jim Croce’s performance of Muehleisen’s song “Salon and Saloon” — still one of my favorites.) It’s quite good:
And here is another off Gingerbreadd, “Free To Love You”:
Muehleisen, of course, died with Jim Croce in that plane crash at the age of 24. It’s very sad. He certainly would have gone on to do great work.
Jim Croce’s Music
I used to do a morning music feature on this blog and I featured Jim Croce on a number of times. I’ve put them all together here.
Old Man River
For no good reason, I thought that I would spend the week listening to Jim Croce singing songs that he didn’t write. This is probably because I’ve had “Old Man River” going through my head all day. I first heard it on the album The Faces I’ve Been — a reference to his song “The Hard Way Every Time.” It was released after his death (like pretty much everything else). It was kind of a biography of him.
According to the extensive liner notes, they had Croce record “Old Man River” to show to the record companies that he could perform other people’s music. And it’s very true. Croce had an amazing ability to make whatever song he sang his own. Or at least that was true in the later years. Sadly, The Faces I’ve Been has never been released on CD. But you can get it on 8-track!
Jim Croce was a singer-songwriter during that period when that was the thing to be on Top 40 radio. And he was a great songwriter — especially so because he was a great storyteller. If you’ve listened to him perform live, you know that he easily spent more time telling stories than singing. But one thing that often surprises people is that Croce’s hit song “I Got a Name” was not written by him. It was written by two movie theme hacks (great hacks, but hacks nonetheless) Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox for the film The Last American Hero.
Because Croce did almost exclusively his own music, people don’t appreciate his amazing ability to make other people’s writing his own. This is quite apparent on Old Man River and the Maury Muehleisen song Salon and Saloon. But here he is performing “I Got a Name” live with Muehleisen on lead guitar and producer Tommy West on piano:
Working at the Car Wash Blues
As my sister was getting ready for work today, she mentioned one of my favorite Jim Croce tunes, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.” It was off his last album, I Got a Name. It’s a very funny song — very much in the tradition of Roger Miller. The singer is talking about his new job working at a car wash after having been released from jail for “non-support” (not paying child support). In one way, it’s a very nasty song because the singer does not come off well.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to love the guy. He’s just gotten out of jail — basically for not having any money — but, as Croce says in the introduction to the song, he “thinks he should be ruling the universe.” I have a certain love for these kinds of people because I think I’m kind of the opposite. Yes, I have a lot of skills, but I probably should be working at the car wash.
And especially in this country, can we say that the man is wrong? I’ve met lots of rich people in my life and very few of them are worthy of their wealth. The film Trading Places had it right. Some old meth addict could well be running a Fortune 500 company while some superstar executive in an air conditioned office with a swivel chair might be more correctly working at the car wash.
Ball of Kerrymuir
In 1989, Jim Croce Live: The Final Tour was released. It was very exciting, because I had never seen Croce live (he died when I was 9 years old) or even heard anything live except one song on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The amazing thing about the disc is that roughly half of it is Croce telling stories. He was a great storyteller, which is hardly surprising given his many great story songs.
Today, we listen to “Ball of Kerrymuir.” It is a humorous song. Croce had quite a good sense of humor. An early song from his folk days was “Pig Song.” But also many of Croce’s own songs were funny like “Speedball Tucker” — with the line, “95 was the route you were on, it was not the speed limit sign.” In fact, on this live album, Croce introduces the two minute song with a seven minute story.
According to Croce, “Ball of Kerrymuir” was written down by Robert Burns. I think this is a common belief, but it isn’t true. Regardless, it is an old and very bawdy song:
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, there was a song “Thursday” by this mysterious guy named Sal Joseph. It turns out that Joseph (real name: Joe Salviuolo) was a college friend of Jim Croce’s. He was later a communications professor at Glassboro State College, where he taught Maury Muehleisen. So Joseph introduced Muehleisen and Croce. You can read all about it at Sound Click, where you can also hear a number of Joseph’s songs including “Groundless,” which appears to be about Jim Croce’s death.
“Thursday” is very much a Jim Croce kind of song. It’s a man’s lament that he loves a woman more than she loves him. There’s also a fair amount of bitterness — similar to Croce’s own songs “Lover’s Cross” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” But the refrain is nicely understanding, “I was looking for a lifetime lover, and you were looking for a friend.” It’s good when people can see that truth.
Chain Gang Medley
We have another song off the album The Faces I’ve Been. Or rather, it is a medley of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Butler, Carter, and Mayfield’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Searchin’.”
I believe that the musicians on the song are — at least in part — Tommy West and Terry Cashman who produced all his albums and were a well known songwriting team. I’ll point out Tommy West later in the week. In general, when you hear a piano in a Croce tune, it is West.
Salon and Saloon
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, he performed three songs by other writers. The best of them was “Salon and Saloon” by his lead guitarist and friend Maury Muehleisen. It’s totally unlike any other song that Croce ever performed. Even though he was much younger, Muehleisen had a profound impact on Croce’s song writing. He taught Croce basic music theory. Up to that point, Croce’s music had all been very much in the folk tradition of of I-IV-V chords.
The song is harmonically complex, with lots of dominant, minor, and even major sevenths. But it is also interesting in how it plays with time signatures. When I was ten years old, I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t hear it. But when I rediscovered it in my mid-teens, it blew me away. It’s such a beautiful song.
Jim’s Son: Adrian James Croce
Not surprisingly, Jim Croce had a son who is an incredibly talented musician. (It isn’t just jim; his wife Ingrid is also a talented musician.) He does rather different music from his father, and almost never does his father’s songs. Below, we get a real treat: Jim and Ingrid’s son performing one of Jim Croce’s big hits: “Operator.”
His name is Adrian James Croce (usually known as AJ Croce) on the 40th anniversary of its release. (Well, that’s what he says. The performance is on 8 June 2012 and according to Wikipedia, the song was released on 23 August 1972. Maybe he means it was recorded that day. Or first performed. Or maybe it means AJ is just wrong, given that he was less than a year old.)
AJ Croce as His Own Man
AJ Croce is a great musician. I heard a whole concert of his many years ago and I was very impressed. I especially remember his cover of Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot.” Anyway, AJ Croce has stayed very much away from riding on his father’s shirttails. For example, he does not sing like him and doesn’t write the same kind of material. Actually, I think he’s a much greater musical talent than his father — but obviously, he had many advantages.
Operator: The Story
Like a good fraction of Croce tunes, “Operator” tells a story. In this case, it tells the story of a man trying to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend who ran off with his best friend. But as the song continues on, it is clear that the singer does not wish to reconnect; he only wishes for someone to talk to. It’s like in the the Janis Ian song “In the Winter” where she sings, “And for a dime I can talk to God.” In Croce’s case, it is the operator.
The song is outdated. Not only is a payphone call a lot more than a dime, you can hardly find a payphone anymore. What’s more, there are no longer human operators. Hell, there are very few human anythings. Soon, you’ll have to hire a prostitute just to have someone to talk to. And yet, I think that “Operator” works as well today as it did 40 years ago. It all comes down to the story, which is eternal, and Croce’s performance, which sounds like he’s lived it.
But here is Jim’s only son singing his father’s hit. And it is well worth a listen.
It’s Christmas, 2017. The Republicans are happy as can be because they learned that even the most moderate members of their caucus can be bought for peanuts. We learned that Susan Collins was willing to deprive 13 million people of healthcare for the promise that the Senate would vote on stabilizing the Obamacare exchanges. But the deal doesn’t apply to the House, so it means… nothing. I don’t think she’s stupid. Like every national-level Republican, she hates everyone except the rich.
In a few months, even she won’t be able to deny that she did extreme damage to the United States of America in exchange for nothing. “Oh, how could her fellow Republicans be so nasty!” But she didn’t make a deal with the Republicans — she made a deal with the Republicans in the Senate. So at best, all this means is that Susan Collins is just stupid. I have no doubt of that. But the bigger issue is that Susan Collins is evil. I really hope there’s a hell and she burns in agony for all eternity. I mean that! But I’d be willing to go with a century.
Susan Collins Is Just a Synecdoche for the Republican Party
I don’t mean to be down on Collins. She’s just a symbol. She’s the “most moderate Republican in the Senate.” And that means she’s just about the most moderate Republican in Washington. Yet if you replaced her in the Senate of 1980, she’d be the most extreme. That’s modern America: we’ve gone off the rails. The Republican Party is crazy. They have control of the country, so the country is crazy.
But I guess we can be forgiven. This is how empires fall. What is interesting is that most people — the power elites especially — don’t think so. They think that the good times will go on forever. But it won’t. It’s like what Bertrand Russell said:
The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.
Yeah, every day it is just great! You fed and pampered and then one day is very different. That’s what will happen to us. There will be a new superpower. And then one after that. And so on and on. Yet the power elite will never learn. They’ll think the party will go on forever. It always has. No one has wringed its neck yet!
Aren’t Humans Better?
I know a lot of you think that humans are better. So do I! The problem is that the people who crave power and money, they are different. They lack empathy. They don’t know or care what it’s like to worry if their children will have enough to eat. They don’t know or care that others live lives of little fulfillment or choice. They don’t care that we are destroying the planet. They just care that their lives are great. And they convince themselves that it is all because they are so great.
At Christmas time, they should think of God. They should imagine that even if they are better — smarter, stronger, harder working — they aren’t that way because they made themselves that way. They are that way because God made them that way — or because of pure chance.
Meanwhile, all the people who learned the lessons of kindergarten — to share and treat others well — they do, at best, so-so. Because we don’t create societies designed to reward nice people; we create societies based on the law of the jungle with a tiny bit of humanity sprinkled on top so that the non-complete psychopaths can live with themselves.
The first Trump Christmas
This is the first Christmas we’ve had with President Donald J Trump. And really: I’m glad. He’s the president we deserve. He’s the president who represents the nation that we built. You know the Revolutionary War? The southern states went with it because they were afraid that if they stayed in the British Empire, they might soon be deprived of their peculiar institution. And northern slave ships might have been deprived of all that sweet, sweet slave money!
“No Taxation Without Representation!” That was just a slogan for the prols. England would give them representation. The Americans didn’t want it because their revolution had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money.
Putin is right to worry about the United States. We are dangerous and unpredictable. And we don’t care about our own citizens, much less those of other countries. Will we get out of the Trump presidency without a nuclear war? I give it a 50-50 chance.
I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care. But it’s more that I can’t care. All I see is suffering. And what does our government do? It stops refugees from getting asylum. It lets US citizens struggle after a natural disaster because they speak the wrong language and have the wrong skin color. They are throwing 13 million people off their health insurance so they can give more money to people who are already ridiculously wealthy.
And don’t believe the propaganda! These companies getting tax breaks are going to use the money to further automate their facilities so they can lay-off even more people. And to top it off, they are allowing dead people to give even more money to their kids tax-free. $5.5 million wasn’t enough; now it is double that. And they wanted to get rid of it altogether! It’s just that a few Republicans thought that might look bad. Oh, all those tough choices!
Merry Christmas 2017!
This is why we need Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman and all these other myths. We can’t believe our leaders. Remember when Trump ran as a populist and then filled his cabinet with people from Goldman Sachs? Remember when he said his tax bill would cost him a fortune? It is estimated that it will make him $15 million extra every year! And his family will be similarly enriched.
I don’t know what to tell you. Certainly, it is true that Trump supporters would still love him if he jabbed them in their eyes with a dagger. Republicans, of course, think that in February, people will see they have more money and be thrilled with Trump. But Obama gave middle and lower-income people a bigger tax reduction. When asked about it in November — after they had had it for almost a year — over half of them said their taxes were the same. More people said their taxes had gone up than people who said (rightly) that their taxes had gone down.
So the good news is that in the 2018 elections, the Republicans are likely to get slaughtered. My only hope is that this lasts to 2020, and that the Democrats get complete control of Washington and fix all the damage the Republicans have caused.
I don’t want anything for Christmas in 2017, 2018, or 2019. In 2020, I want to see professional politicians who actually care about America and Americans back in power. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t know what we are going to do.
But if a group of people can mess this up, it is the American people. Thus far, they seem to understand that the Republicans are destroying this country. They are right. I hope they keep remembering this. Because I love this country. And I don’t want to see it destroyed so Donald Trump and his friends can get even richer.
There was this little cafe in Cotati, California that used to serve this thing they called Grandma’s Eggs. My first wife and I really liked it. But over the years as I got more into cooking, I saw that it had many problems.
First, the potatoes in it were cut too large. And they were fried and not usually cooked enough. So I’m going to explain to you the proper way to make this delicious breakfast dish. It also has the advantage of being fast to make.
The first thing you must do is get a couple of good russet potato and clean them as much as you think is necessary. I personally think that as a culture, we are way too hygienic. You don’t need to clean everything so much. That includes your bodies. Geez, people, give it a rest. There are only a few parts of the body that are really disgusting. And most people don’t clean them very well because they are disgusting. The anus is disgusting. The bellybutton is disgusting. Women seem to do a very good job on their vaginas. Men don’t tend to do as good a job on their penises. It’s no wonder most women don’t like giving blowjobs. And here’s something most men won’t admit to: blowjobs aren’t very pleasurable. Men seem to like them because women tend not to like to give them. I’ve talked to a lot of men, and mostly they don’t much like them. On the other hand, most men find a nice clean vagina a source of endless erotic enjoyment.
Where was I? Oh yes, potatoes. Cut the potatoes up into squares of about 3/8″ to 1/2″. Then put them in a microwave-safe dish and pour a little olice oil on them. Then mix. The reason for this is to stop the cut potato parts from sticking together. Cook them on high for about 4 minutes. Then take them out, mix them again, and cook for another 4 minutes.
Now this is tricky because the bowl will get very hot. What I usually do is to use two bowls. Transfirst the first cooked set into a second bowl.
Fry the Potatoes and Onions
Add about 2 tablespoons of butter to a skillet and then heat to the point where the potatoes are in that position where it really is hard not to eat them. while they lightly fry, get a small onion out and dice it. Add it to the potatoes. Then spice with about a half teaspoon of salt and an eighth a teaspoon of pepper. Cook until delightful.
In a separate mixing bowl, crack 5-6 eggs. Or 7. Or 8. I think it’s better for more eggs. But you don’t want it to overwhelm the potatoes and onions.
Now you just cook it until the eggs are solidified. And serve. It’s delicious. Really.
It’s the perfect example of how you just can’t go wrong with a dish of good ingredients. You can add other things too. Throw in some frozen peas or corn. Add anything else that you think will make it more delicious. You can also add grated cheese, but I really do think that’s a bit much. But sliced mushrooms? Can’t go wrong there! Whatever you like.
It is almost always the case that I make more potatoes than I need. So you can just put the extras in a container and use it for a future batch of Grandma’s Eggs. After you make the recipe a few times, you’ll get a good idea of how much potato you need for your guests.
I’m not planning to show up for Christmas until about noon. So I’ll make enough for me and not worrying about the rest of the clan.
My plan for the day is to make myself some wonderful Grandma’s Eggs, and then drink quite a lot more than I need to. All the difficult stuff has already been cooked. But I’d be fine eating Grandma’s Eggs for dinner. It’s delicious.
It goes really well with a bagel or an English muffin. But then I’m going to have to go on a diet. I’ve gotten so fat! It’s amazing! I didn’t think I was capable of putting on this much weight. It’s a good thing that I really don’t care anymore!
What follows is what I have written on previous Christmases when I didn’t even think something like this was possible.
–FM (25 December 2017)
The First Secular Christmas
Since I first started this blog, I have been creating posts for Christmas. I am, of course, an atheist. But I love Christmas. I love any opportunity I have to cook for large groups. So what follows will include a lot of stuff about food, but also material that will appeal to anyone who likes Christmas in a secular way.
I agreed to make dinner for five on Christmas day—not so much because I wanted to, but because I wanted to have prime rib for dinner. It turned out to be twelve people, but the bigger problem was that I created a four-course menu and had a wholly unsatisfactory kitchen. It was stressful and the results were so-so; but it worked. Many thanks go out to Brian Pricer for his amazing taste buds and invaluable help
For this I used a standard recipe that I mostly ripped off from a magazine without a cover. I’ve made it before, but this time it was utterly disappointing. This can be attributed to the fact that I used a tube of anchovy paste instead of making my own. Learn from my mistakes: always make your own anchovy paste. I don’t like making anchovy paste; the smell of the anchovies makes me gag, but this is a small price to pay for an acceptable Ceasar.
Cream of Tomato Soup
This may seem like an odd choice, but I thought it was a nice link between the salad and the main course—maybe because I love cream of tomato soup and have been searching for the perfect recipe for the last fifteen years and this represented an excellent opportunity to experiment. For me, this was the high point of the meal. The previous day, I made the recipe and it wasn’t so good. I made a few changes—a big one from Brian—and it made all the difference. Here is the recipe. It is based upon an idea from Cooks Dot Com to use cream cheese rather than heavy cream. (Actually, it had a fair bit of heavy cream too; I can’t help myself.)
I am too suceptible to the opinions of others—at least it comes to cooking. As a result, the prime rib (11 pounds!) ended up being over-cooked by about a half-hour. It was still very good; you can’t really make a prime rib that doesn’t taste delicious.
With the beef, I made an artery-clotting Asiago and Sage Scalloped Potatoes using an online recipe (it has errors in it, so if you try it, study it first and figure out how you will deal with them). It was very good, but it really needed more cooking time. In general, I prefer to have scalloped potatoes twice baked; I should have done that this time.
Finally, there were Julienne of Fresh Snow Peas and Carrots. I started with another online recipe, but my early experiments did not inspire. In the end, I added a little ginger (I like ginger a lot) and replaced the olive oil with grape seed oil (another suggestion of Brian’s). The grape seed oil made all the difference; it was great.
For dessert, I had planned to make a cheese cake. Brian stepped up, however, and did the dessert for me. He made a cheese cake that was not exactly to my liking; I think mine is better, but it was still delicious; you can’t go wrong with four pounds of cream cheese and a pound of sugar, right? But he also made a pumpkin pie that also included two other squashes. It was by far the best pumpkin pie I have ever tasted. It was amazing. I will get that recipe if I can and post it here.
In the end, at least it was an interesting dinner. And I didn’t have to eat turkey. And I learned a bit about managing a large dinner. And then I collapsed.
–FM (29 December 2009)
Merry Secular Christmas: The Second
For those who dread this day, but have nothing like cooking to distract you, I provide a few diversions.
I’ve put together three Christmas Anti-Carols in a YouTube playlist. First is Porn Orchid channeling Tom Waits and Bauhaus with a cheery ditty (Oh! Give me a noose I can hang from the tree!), Christmas Sucks. Then we have the real Tom Waits with Christmas Card From a Hooker. And last is Eric Idle’s Fuck Christmas, with lyrics so you can sing along!
As we celebrate Christmas, the family has been listening to a local station playing holiday oriented songs. And then on came Bob Dylan doing one of the Christmas classics, Positively 4th Street. You can’t get enough bitterness and anger during the holidays. Merry fucking Christmas!
What Christmas is All About
My friend Will really loves this bit from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Or at least he did. I used to like it too. Now, I see it for what it is: Charles Schulz cramming his religion down my throat. He even repeats the damned speech in voice over! If you look back at his comic strip, he threw a lot of Christian mythology into it. To each his own. But I do think it is heavy-handed.
Of course, Schulz lost his faith and died more or less an atheist. Because he wasn’t an idiot.
It’s Not a Wonderful Life
The following parody of It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t all that funny. But I include it for personal reasons. You see, I’m a big Frank Capra fan. It Happened One Night is one of my very favorite films. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Lost Horizon are both excellent films.
But I can’t stand James Stewart. How he became a star, I’ll never know. His minor role in Philadelphia Story almost ruins the film, but even he can’t destroy something with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But without a doubt the film he most completely destroys is It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course, even I have to admit that the film also suffers from Capra’s own excesses.
So any time someone parodies the film, I’m for it. Regarding this SNL parody: it has more real human emotion than the actual film.
Give the Jew Girl Toys
In my long standing commitment to ruining every holiday, here is Sarah Silverman performing Give The Jew Girl Toys:
–FM (25 December 2012)
I’m Mysterious, Folks — Live With It
Christmas would not be complete without a little thought about God. And this gives me the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that I am an atheist and why few other atheists believe that I am.
In the following amusing scene from Keeping Mum, Reverend Goodfellow quotes from Isaiah 55:8, about the mysteriousness of God. I’ll give you a bit more than he does. It’s from the Old Testament. What’s more, it is rather older than other Old Testament books we know and love like Leviticus. Like most of the entire Bible, but especially the Old Testament, Isaiah is not what it purports to be. It was written by at least three different people over the course of 200 years. What we are looking at comes from around 600 BC, and is an excellent example of what a jerk God is:
 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Here’s the clip. It is Rowan Atkinson. You’ll enjoy it, I promise. Consider it a gift to me:
But Goodfellow’s take on it is correct: “I’m mysterious, folks. Live with it.” Of course, the whole anthropomorphizing of God is silly. But in a broader context, it is how one must live if one thinks about these things. I suppose that most people are too busy or just plain reasonable to worry about such cosmic unanswerable questions. But this is why I say that the best theists are better than the best atheists, even though I am most clearly an atheist. Goodfellow understands that there are no answers, but he values the question. By saying that God is mysterious, he isn’t providing the tired platitude, “God behaves in mysterious ways.” It isn’t apologia; it is acceptance.
Now Goodfellow probably thinks that God loves him. I don’t know; I haven’t seen the movie (but it looks good). But given the observation—”I’m mysterious, folks.”—and the quote from Isaiah, it is meaningless to claim that God loves you. How would you possibly know? God is unfathomable. But I think, despite everything, we have to look at the universe(s) and think that it is a great privilege to have existed. And if someone wants to call that “God’s love,” I have no problem.
Personally, I have a hard time ascribing any kind of motivation to the universe(s). And if there is a motive, I am far too humble (And if you read me, you know that I am not humble!) to think that I am the result of that motivation. If the universe has a purpose, I am a byproduct. And that’s fine. Regardless, I am blessed. I have grace. And now you know, why none of the other atheists want to let me join in their atheist games.
Merry Christmas or whatever!
Sam Seder’s War on Christmas
From year’s ago, it is still a classic: Sam Seder’s battle with Bob Knight about the War on Christmas. (It’s embedded below.) Seder is hilarious in this segment. But the more serious thing here is that Knight actually claims that, “The war on Christmas is really the culmination of a war on faith.” Look, I’m pretty hard on atheists around here, but at least they are a minority group that is by and large despised in this country. They have real reasons for feeling marginalized. But Christians? According to Wikipedia, between 73% and 80% of Americans call themselves Christians. The fact that they play this victimization game is appalling. It is also shameful. I don’t think that Christians, without prodding from “leaders” like Bob Knight and Bill O’Reilly, would ever think there was a war on Christmas. Christians are allowed to celebrate the holiday any way they want.
I discussed this last year in, Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas. The issue is not that Christians are being harmed in any way. It is that their religion is so powerful in this country, that they feel persecuted when the entire society doesn’t rise up and say, “But we understand that, unlike all those other religions, your religion is true.” And this kind of thing coming from a huge majority is simple bullying. As I wrote:
Another aspect of this is the use of majority status to silence the minority. The argument goes something like this, “Most people in the United States are Christians, so why not just say, ‘Merry Christmas’?” This would be a strong argument if anyone were avoiding a discussion of the holiday. But “Happy Holidays” does not exclude Christmas, while “Merry Christmas” does exclude others. The truth is that minority groups are, for a number of good reasons, insecure. So if anyone is unhappy it ought to be the Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and so on. With almost 80% of Americans being Christians, what do they have to worry about?
The whole issue is made worse because the very Christians who hate “Happy Holidays” want to “put the Christ back in Christmas!” This creates a problem for those of us who think that Christmas is a secular holiday having nothing to do with religion. (I’ll discuss this later today.) We have no problem with “Merry Christmas” because it is just that federal holiday when you are expected to give everyone gifts and cook a lot of food. But if somehow people manage to turn Christmas into a religious holiday, then we will have a problem with “Merry Christmas.”
And really, if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t want atheists going around saying, “Merry Christmas!” I would think that was profane. Ditto for corporate retailers trying to suck up to Christian customers. But as I have noted many times before, most Christians talking in public are idiots. I don’t think for an instant that Bill O’Reilly speaks for the Catholic Church. He’s a “Catholic” because he was raised a Catholic. His religion, like those of most of the people you hear talking about this, is money.
There is no war on Christmas. There is no war on faith. That is psychotic delusion talk. And shame on any news organization that takes it seriously. Sam Seder takes it exactly as seriously as it deserves:
A Brief History of Santa
The great CGP Grey put the following video together two years ago this Christmas. It is “A Brief History of Santa.” Now I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the video, but in general, Grey has his facts together. So if it is wrong, I’m sure it’s just stuff around the edges. The main thing in this that I know is true (And important!) is that Santa Claus has basically no real connection to the fourth century Greek Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And as anthropologist have long known, he (Just like Jesus if he walked the earth) was not white. That’s him there over on the left.
So enjoy and learn how we got Santa Claus as we now find him, including interesting facts about where he is supposed to live:
Special Christmas Birthday Bonus
On this day in 0 AD, Jesus was born. I tell ya, that one never stops cracking me up! According to scholars who are inclined to believe the Bible, Jesus is thought to have been born between 7 and 2 BC. And where the data 25 December comes from is open to debate. By around the start of the fourth century, the Church was just using the date without any real justification. Of course, because of gradual changes in the earth’s orbit, the actual date ought to have been slowly changed to some time in January. According the Wikipedia, “The date of Christmas may have initially been chosen to correspond with the day exactly nine months after early Christians believed Jesus to have been conceived, or with one or more ancient polytheistic festivals that occurred near southern solstice…” In other words, it’s a mess.
But this much is very interesting to me: there is a whole academic industry devoted to trying to tweeze history out of a clearly (and purely) religious text. And then people say things like, “Hey, Luke and Matthew agree on this point!” Like Luke and Matthew aren’t based on either the Q document or Luke based on Matthew itself. It’s all so silly. I’m with Robert Price: maybe Jesus was a real guy, but by this point, he has been so papered over with myth that there is nothing left of the historical figure. If you are a believer, you’ll just have to wait until you get to heaven. If you aren’t a believer, I think you should just place Jesus in the same category as Thor. And by that I don’t mean that Jesus doesn’t exist and isn’t God. I just mean that Jesus is some God that some people believe in now, or once believed in. The historicity question is nothing more than intellectual masturbation.
Bottom line: if Jesus was an actual man, there is roughly a one in 365.25 chance that he was born today. And who really cares? It’s an excuse for a party.
I do wish that Christians would stop getting upset about the use of Xmas. It is an abbreviation that goes back at least a thousand years. The X is just the closest that we have in English to the Greek letter Chi, which early Christians used as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Unfortunately, as in most things, it is the people with the most ignorant of ideas who are the loudest.
–FM (25 December 2013)
Christmas Music Doesn’t Have to Suck
I had wanted to put together some music for Christmas. But you know: music that doesn’t suck. This is a lot harder a chore than it sounds like. The truth is that most traditional Christmas music really is terrible. And I don’t say that out of some desire to be iconoclastic. Part of it is just that I really do have a low opinion of Perry Como. But I will admit that most of it is simply the fact that I’m just really, really bored with it.
Another problem is that most Christmas music is not organic. At some point in a star’s career, someone who worries about money says, “It’s time to release a Christmas album.” The star doesn’t understand why at first, but as soon as it is explained, he is on board. Everyone likes free money!
But despite the fact that most Christmas music is primarily about money (Fitting!) and tired, there are some songs that I like. Let’s start with a classic, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis. I just like his affected singing. Plus, it’s just a love song with some clever lyrics:
“Santa Baby” is a silly song. But Eartha Kitt is wonderful:
You know, there was a kind of “new wave” music that didn’t suck. Mostly, it was when they didn’t take themselves seriously and didn’t use synths. That’s why Tom Tom Club was better than the first Talking Heads album. And that why one of the most enduring Christmas songs is The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” “Christmas Wrapping”:
I’m sure there are others, but I don’t have time for a bunch of research or reflection. Ultimately, I think the best thing for Christmas is just to put on some great music regardless. But thus far this holiday season, I’ve been forced to turn off Bill Evans and Jacques Brel. But personally, I think that Mozart is very festive:
I hope you have a Merry Christmas, even if the music sucks all day long!
Avoiding Christmas Conflict
Are you wondering how you are going to get through this holiday season without killing your family members? Last year, I offered up a little advice, Pigeons and Politics. It was a little serious guidance from my years of both having reasonable political discussions and having ones that came to blows. Ultimately, the best thing to do is to avoid everything except maybe, “How about them Ravens?!” That is unfortunately as far as I can go. One of the best moments in The Birdcage was where Armand says, “How do you feel about that call today?” to Albert as they practice not being gay. Albert responds, “How do you think I feel? Betrayed, bewildered… wrong response?” But the truth is that Armand doesn’t know any more than Albert.
Luckily, The Onion offered up some helpful advice, Avoiding Family Conflict During the Holiday Season. Much of it is just amusing like, “Try to end thousands of years of entrenched prejudices before flying home and talking about current events.” Or: “Avoid anything that could trigger fights, like a history of family depression.” Or even: “Change name. Start new life.”
That last one is part of a broader category of actually useful advice. For example, “Split potentially huge family blowouts into smaller, more manageable bickering matches over the course of the holiday season.” Or: “Ensure each family member has their own table at which to eat dinner.” But most of all, there is this rather too detailed plan for the day:
If you become frustrated during the festivities, consider going for a walk to the end of the driveway, continuing on for half an hour, reaching the town limits, entering a train station, buying the first available ticket, arriving in a town called Rockport, heading to the edge of the ocean, and just screaming.
Some of them, however, are just hysterically funny (not that the last one wasn’t). Consider, “Take the time to consider things from your brother-in-law’s point of view so you can fully appreciate how f**king stupid his perspective is.” Or: “Make yourself appear larger than you are around your father-in-law by standing up on your hind legs and puffing out your chest.” But my favorite sounds like something I’ve experienced, “Encourage family members to seek personal space when they need it by telling them the front door’s right f**king there anytime they want to use it.”
I hope this helps to make your holiday experience better. And if not: there’s always the train.
The Reason for the Season Is a Myth
The idea is that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are none of them biographies in the modern sense. Some were simply collections of sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about Jesus, some of them allegorical, some legendary, few historical. Others were attempts to write for Jesus the sort of literary and edifying biography then written about certain great Greco-Roman figures like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana. But these, too, were far from what the modern scholar would consider to be historical.
Thus the work of the student of the historical Jesus is rather like looking for a historical needle in a legendary haystack. There is little to find, and it is not easy to find even that. Even so, some scholars have done a passable job reconstructing possible versions of the historical Jesus. Some paint him as a peasant revolutionist, violent or non-violent. Others make him a magician. Some an apocalyptic prophet, others a wandering sage.
And of course some of these Jesus-constructs are combinable. Each is a “historical Jesus” in that each is a viable product of the science of historical reconstruction. The trouble is, there is really no way of knowing how close to the real thing any of these reconstructions has come. And there never will be until someone smarter than us New Testament scholars invents a time machine.
The “historical Jesus” in the sense of “Jesus as he really was,” must remain, I am convinced, unknown to us. Thus it is fair, though admittedly a bit clever, to say that whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no longer. That is, even assuming Jesus of Nazareth to have been a historical character who actually lived, we have no access to him and never will.
Chris Blattman is a political scientist at Columbia University. He wrote an interesting article this last week, The True Meaning of Christmas. I came upon it through a link at Economist’s View, and so I figured that it was going to be about the meaning of Christmas being commerce. It is good for the economy, as I note when I’m forced to drop by Target and I see that there are literally ten times as many people shopping as normal. But that wasn’t Blattman’s point at all. It’s rather the opposite.
Tim Harford: In Praise of Scrooge
Last week in FT Magazine, Tim Harford wrote, In Praise of Scrooge. It starts with the questionable claim that misers make the rest of us richer. While I accept that’s true if we had limited resources, it seems to me that misers (or people who burn money) are limiting economic flow and thus keeping most people poorer. But that’s not the main part of his article. He’s interested in the deadweight loss of Christmas: the fact that a lot of money is spent on stuff the recipient doesn’t want. Again, I’m not sure that matters at the macroscale. It doesn’t really matter what all those people at Target are buying so long as they are buying something.
Chris Blatman’s Response
“Giving gifts also creates inequalities, very much on purpose. These gifts quietly say, ‘I did something nice for you. Now we’ll see if you pay me back and how. I’m watching and waiting.'” —Chris Blattman
Chris Blattman responded to this by noting that gift giving really isn’t about economic efficiency but rather cultural signaling. Clearly, that signaling can itself be economic as when the rich give to the poor. (Did you think that the Gateses gave all that money without getting something priceless in exchange?) But on the other side Blattman noted, “Think about gift exchange between relative equals. Cash would be pointless. I’d give you $50 and you give me $50. What would be the use of that?” Indeed, there is no use in doing that, and gift exchanges between equals must have to do with something else.
But think about that for a moment. Christmas really is good for the economy. But the most efficient system, by Tim Harford’s thinking, would be if we did no giving whatsoever. Or, to take Blattman’s example, if I gave my sister fifty bucks and she gave it back to me. This would clearly result in less economic activity. There would be fewer jobs. We would be in a state of constant recession. Now, from an environmental standpoint, that might not be bad. But given that our modern economy is based upon consumption and more consumption, we might want to work out how all of this would affect the working class before we call off the practice of holiday gift giving.
Gift Giving as Emotional Negotiation
The way gift giving really works is summed up by Chris Blattman this way, “Giving gifts also creates inequalities, very much on purpose. These gifts quietly say, ‘I did something nice for you. Now we’ll see if you pay me back and how. I’m watching and waiting.'” Now, he claims this sounds cynical, but I don’t think it does. People are constantly appraising their relationships. That’s all this is. It isn’t about wanting to make good on your financial investment, but on your emotional investment.
Gift giving is about that dance that characterizes our relationships. We are all still that teenager pulling off flower petals, “She loves me… She loves me not…” Gifts allow us to signal that we care. And it allows millions of people to have jobs in the winter that they wouldn’t normally have. It’s a winning custom for the whole of society.
Odds and Ends From Christmas 2015
Merry Christmas everyone! As you read this, I will probably be suitably toasted as I serve dinner to my family. But in Christmases past, I’ve written some rather interesting articles about the holiday and I want to share them with you. There are also other odds and ends that aren’t as directly related to me. It’s all quite interesting I think.
The Little Drummer Boy
I remember Christmas shows like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. I’ve seen them so many times, I have them largely memorized. But I have only the vaguest of memory of the other big Rankin/Bass Productions Christmas show, The Little Drummer Boy. It’s possible I blocked it out. I found the following video through Paul Bibeau’s article, The Five Most Traumatic Christmas Special Moments. It is a video with Jane Edith Wilson reading her essay about how The Little Drummer Boy scarred her. It’s very funny:
A Brief Political Interlude
This is too good. I often like Bill Maher. But when it comes to Muslims, he’s a flat-out racist. And that makes him a complete apologist for all kinds of vile government action. Mostly, he finds himself in the company of people who won’t battle with him. But this exchange with Glenn Greenwald is fantastic. Maher tries to extricate himself by mumbling, “That silly liberal view that all religions are alike because it makes you feel good.” Greenwald will have none of it. He comes right back with, “No, it makes you feel good to say our side is better… You get to ignore the responsibility that your own government has for the violence and instability in the world by saying, ‘Look! It’s that primitive religion over there that’s the blame!'” Exactly. Maher just “knows” that the problem is Islam, even though the closest he’s ever come to the religion is hosting Sam Harris.
Okay, this has nothing to do with Christmas, but somehow, I think it fits. It is an animated short by Enrico Casarosa called, La Luna. It’s wonderful:
Pasty White Guy Gets Cool Gift
Danger, Will Robinson! Very large picture of dumpy old white guy ahead!
The cool things about friends is that they know things about you. Yesterday, Will stopped by to drop off a Christmas gift to me. I knew that he had bought me a t-shirt and I figured it was something with Bernie Sanders on it. But no. It was a Gil Scott-Heron t-shirt, “Must be something we can do.”
And Will bought it before my Gil Scott-Heron week. Anyway, it is one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. To prove it, I’m providing this embarrassing (And blurry!) picture of myself:
The Santa Claus Conspiracy
As regular readers know, I think Paul Bibeau is one of the great treasures of the modern world. I still find it amazing that he isn’t a big star. But there is a quote told to struggling artists, “If you wonder why you aren’t successful even though your work is great, that may be the reason.” For most artists, that’s not true. But in Bibeau’s case it probably is. If he were half as smart and half as talented, he probably would be a star.
Back in 2012 he wrote, The Truth About Santa Claus. It is about the uncoordinated conspiracy of parents to play Santa. But in keeping with the undeniable fact that if you scratch a cynic you will uncover an emotional marshmallow, he wrote this:
And the heart of it is this: that we are here to love one another. That our most important job is to help the people around us build a life in this world. That the best we can ever hope to accomplish in our short time here is to someday be someone’s happy memory. Parents know this. And so do couples and friends and anyone holding anyone else’s hand under our shared and difficult circumstances.
As an emotional marshmallow myself: I agree.
And let’s finish off with the most recent Bob’s Burgers Christmas episode, “Nice-Capades.” It will only be around for another month, so you should watch it. Now. Trust me: your family will love it! (For the record, this includes one of the best jokes ever. After the mall Santa says, “You just kicked Santa out of the massage chair,” Gene says, “Isn’t that a song?” That’s brilliant.)
[Note: you have to pay for this now that Hulu has figured out that they are such idiots they can’t make money streaming a 22 minute show peppered with 7 minutes of commercials. -FM]
That’s it for now! Have a wonderful Christmas and try to be someone’s happy memory!
–FM (25 December 2015)
A Merry Christmas for Edwards and MacLiammóir
Once filming was complete, MacLiammóir, Edwards, and Cloutier were flown first to Marseilles, en route — as they believed — for Morocco again; but instead of North Africa, they were transported to the idyllic artists’ colony at Saint-Paul-de-Vence in Provence, where they were greeted gloomily by Welles, who immediately set off for Paris. A few days later they joined him there. No explanation was ever offered for any of these bewildering peregrinations. Their lives had turned into a major-key rehash of Waiting for Godot, with a dash of Kafka — major key because they were excellently fed and watered and the locations were all charming, but the sense of disorientation was acute. They were beginning to doubt whether they would see Dublin that Christmas: “feel sure that Orson has plans for large Christmas tree in marketplace at Mogador, entertainment probably to include brief but startling appearance of O himself as Santa Claus.” As if in defiance of the chaotic reality, Welles made a public announcement that Othello had completed filming and that he would soon be starting work on Ulysses, which was certainly putting a brave face on things.
The truth of the matter was that he was increasingly anxious about money; his last earnings had been in April, on The Black Rose. With no handy $100,000 on offer from a passing blockbuster, he had started to think in terms of a theater tour, to kick off in Paris and then to play such centers as Brussels, Antwerp, Lille, and Amsterdam. It would consist of a double bill comprising The Importance of Being Earnest (slightly cut) and Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (savagely cut). Edwards would direct Earnest and play Canon Chasuble and Marlowe’s Prologue; Welles would direct Faustus and play Algernon Moncrieff and Faustus; while MacLiammóir would play Jack Worthing and Mephistopheles, having by now presumably accepted that villainy was well within his range. Suzanne Cloutier would play Cecily and — “poor child,” remarks MacLiammóir — Helen of Troy, while Fay Compton, if they could get her back, would be Lady Bracknell. They would ask Dior to design the costumes and André Derain to do the set. Of course they would.
After a few more days of ebullient planning, still at the stage where everything seems possible — Dior? pourquoi pas? Derain? mais naturellement — Edwards and MacLiammóir gratefully returned, just in time for Christmas, to Dublin, where a card from Welles was waiting for them: “Miss you badly already and hope for wonderful things in New Year.” There were affectionate phone calls on Christmas Day, but no certainty as to what was going to happen next. Welles wrote to them from the Hotel Lancaster in Paris, by no means encouragingly: “As 1949 prepared to die of old age I want to acknowledge that I’ve made it pretty awful for both of you. Come what may (and it probably will) you deserve to know how earnestly I’m going to balance the budget before next Christmas…” But then, in the New Year, something wonderful happened, just as Welles had hoped: the French-Algerian financier/producer Edmond Tenoudji of Films Marceau came through with 12 million francs in exchange for the French distribution rights, so filming could resume.
Image cropped and reduced from original at Getty Images. Licensed under Fair Use.
Odds and Ends From Christmas 2016
Another Christmas. It’s a little interesting to mix Christmas and death. Better would be Easter and death. But whatever. Christmas is just an excuse to cook. But we now have a baby, Hector, who is the result of a US-Mexico collaboration. And I think it is very important that he grow up bilingual. So I bought him books on colors and shapes that are in both English and Spanish. And I got him a “first” Spanish-English dictionary.
But most of all, I got a Spanish translation of Are You My Mother?, ¿Eres Mi Mamá? The great thing about it is that it is properly translated. Many years ago, I got a Spanish-English edition of Green Eggs and Ham, and the Spanish was literally translated — no rhyming or anything. But check out how ¿Eres Mi Mamá?
La mamá pajarito
empollaba un huevito.
Anyway, let’s get on with our odds and ends…
The Reason for the Season
I remember whenever we would visit my aunt at Christmas she would make some statement about remembering the “reason for the season.” She, like most of the people on my mom’s side of the family, is a conservative Christian. And so the “reason” is Jesus and his miraculous birth. It’s kind of funny. My aunt is a nice person and all, but like most people in my family, she’s not educated. The Christmas story is so obviously fable! How can adults believe it? Even if you are a serious Christian, you have to admit that this is nonsense! And really: Easter is what the the religion is all about. Jesus’ birth means nothing.
The idea is that the canonical and non-canonical gospels are none of them biographies in the modern sense. Some were simply collections of sayings attributed to Jesus or stories about Jesus, some of them allegorical, some legendary, few historical. Others were attempts to write for Jesus the sort of literary and edifying biography then written about certain great Greco-Roman figures like Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana. But these, too, were far from what the modern scholar would consider to be historical…
The “historical Jesus” in the sense of “Jesus as he really was,” must remain, I am convinced, unknown to us. Thus it is fair, though admittedly a bit clever, to say that whether or not there was a historical Jesus, there is no longer. That is, even assuming Jesus of Nazareth to have been a historical character who actually lived, we have no access to him and never will.
Any reason for a party, but let’s not start setting people on fire.
CGP Grey dealt with the subject in the following video. It’s good. And it is easier than reading my articles. But he doesn’t touch on what is really the most important issue, which is that we die every instant (or at least each Planck time — roughly ten to the negative 43rd power). Consciousness itself is a lie. But that’s kind of a downer, and CGP Grey tries to stay upbeat.
Checking in With the Belchers
It wouldn’t be a Christmas post without a short word about Bob’s Burgers. Although I have to say that the show now has some competition. Bob’s Burgers really is the show of my life growing up. But Rick and Morty is more the show of my life now. I’ll explain that later. (Maybe I already have.)
This year’s Christmas episode was, “The Last Gingerbread House on the Left.” In it, Linda, Teddy, and the kids go caroling, while Bob gets drawn into yet another of Mr Fischoeder’s crazy adventures. The whole thing reminded me of my last few years of college.
I spent a lot of time with Andrea and her then husband Eric. Eric was a very good person to have around because he always had ideas for things to do. So in those years, the three of us — and a number of other friends — often found ourselves doing stuff that was, all and all, pretty cool.
There were two things that Eric wanted to do that we never did. The first was to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m so glad we never did that, because I did not then know that my acrophobia was so extreme that I couldn’t have made it more than a couple of feet onto the bridge.
The other was that we should all go caroling. I liked that idea. But Bob’s Burgers shows what happens when people who can’t sing go caroling. It isn’t a gift you give to others; it is a gift you demand of others. And that isn’t really so bad — as long as you leave after one song. And if you can’t remember more than a couple of lines, so much the better.
Fairytale of New York
As I noted before, there are good Christmas songs. James reminded me of “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. You probably know of MacColl because of her heroic death. It’s a wonderful song.
A History of Christmas
Several years back, R Elisabeth Cornwell wrote, A Very Atheist Christmas. And she takes on the issue of the supposed hypocrisy of atheists celebrating Christmas:
Some Christians have accused me of being hypocritical for celebrating a Christian holiday. However… celebrations are a natural part of human culture, and Christians simply appropriated local celebrations to suit their own peculiar beliefs. Christmas is only “Christian” because ancient winter pagan celebrations were incorporated by the Church.
The Christmas tree, which became a part of English and American tradition through German influence is a recent tradition. The English took on the German tradition of the Christmas Tree during the Victorian era under the influence of Prince Albert. Americans, on the other hand, were likely influenced by the Prussians during the American Revolution as well as the many German immigrants who came to the fledgling nation. But evergreens have been part of human celebrations at least as far back as the Egyptians as a symbol of the triumph of life over death…
Christmas belongs to anyone who wants it, and just because I gave up believing in a god doesn’t mean I gave up believing in the love and joy of family. I did not give up the joy of celebration with my abandonment of the absurd. So to my religious and non-religious friends, I wish them all a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah from the heart and I hope they take it with the true spirit with which I give it — that of the spirt of humanity — something we can all celebrate.
And that seems like a very nice place to end this special edition of Odds and Ends. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas. If for no other reason, Christmas gives us all one more reason to be less of a dick than we usually are.
Chait goes on to talk about the negative stereotypes that America has about the two parties. Democrats work to counter these negative stereotypes (eg, “Democrats are spendthrifts”), but Republicans don’t (eg, “Republicans just want to give away money to corporations and the super-rich”).
Why Care About Bad Stereotypes
There are a couple of things to think about this. The first thing is that most of the negative stereotypes about Democrats are not based on facts. The Democrats are not spendthrifts. Despite most people thinking the Republicans are fiscally conservative, they aren’t. Whenever they are in power, they start expensive wars they don’t pay for, and give away huge amounts of money to the rich that they don’t pay for.
So given that the bad stereotypes are based on lies, why would anyone believe that telling America the truth would matter? Bill Clinton gutted traditional welfare in this country, and most Republicans I know still think that poor people can stay on welfare their whole lives. America has bought a bill of goods and nothing will stop them from believing them — regardless what the facts are.
When the Democrats were in power, they provided healthcare for the country because the positive stereotypes are correct: they are compassionate and generous. But they paid for it.
When the Republicans decided to give big tax breaks to the rich, they didn’t pay for. They cost the US government at least a trillion dollars. And note: that’s the absolute lowest estimate based on the most rosy assumptions. My bet (ask me about it in ten years) is that unless the Democrats get back in power fast and reverse things, this tax bill will be more like five trillion dollars.
Why Bad Stereotypes Don’t Change
When the bill for the tax cut come comes due, it is likely that the Democrats will be in power. And you can bet that Republicans will be on all the television shows talking about what spendthrifts the Democrats are. They will probably even blame Obamacare (which was paid for) or Social Security (that comes from a different revenue stream, and is also paid for). But don’t expect any journalists to push back on this other than to say, “But the Democrats say…” As though it is just a matter of opinion.
Look at the History
The Republicans new tax bill is nothing new. Republicans have been doing this for decades. Remember in 1980, Ronald Reagan criticized Jimmy Carter for the federal debt, even though it had been going down Carter’s entire term? Then what happened? Reagan was elected. He cut taxes for the rich and greatly increased spending on the military. The result: the debt went way up.
Now I don’t actually care about the debt. But Americans do. They just didn’t notice. Carter didn’t get credit for reducing the debt and Reagan didn’t get condemned for increasing it. America doesn’t care.
This happens again and again.
Look at the Facts on the Ground
Right now, Republicans control Washington. Even if Clinton had won the presidency, that would still be true. And they control most of the states.
So why should Republicans care that they are doing all these things that America hates? If it hurts them, it will only affect them for one (and in rare cases two) election cycles.
So I don’t believe Chait. I think Republicans know what they are doing is extremely unpopular. They just don’t care. They are getting a big win. And it might — Might — hurt them in 2018. Most likely by 2020, all will be forgotten, and the Republicans will get to gerrymander the districts so they will have another 8+ years of almost total political control of the nation.
Until the American people get hurt really badly and start paying attention to what’s really happening they might as well get all the goodies they can. And if the country regains its sanity, the Republicans will go back to being a traditional conservative party, and that will be the end of it. There will be no long-term harm done to them. Meanwhile, look at all the goodies they gave themselves and their friends.
Meanwhile, we liberals just need to hit the streets and limit the damage they continue to do.
Last night I was dancing in my room — alone. Doug Jones won the Senate seat in Alabama. I had donated to his campaign (see below). But I assumed he would lose. The truth is that I just couldn’t deal with hoping. The last few years have not be easy ones for supporters of the Democratic Party. And the truth is that a Doug Jones win would open up a number of possibilities. In particular, it made the vile Republican tax bill (Never call it reform!) had a chance of dying, and it made Democrats retaking the Senate in 2018 a possibility. I couldn’t allow myself to hope with so much on the line.
So I considered my contribution to Doug Jones the way I normally do: as almost a tithe — something I do for the sake of my beliefs and because I am lucky enough to be able to afford it. But the most recent political donations I recall are first for Bernie Sanders, who lost, and then for Hillary Clinton, who lost. (Yes, she lost only because we don’t live in a true democracy, but she’s still not in the White House.) As a result, I was thrilled that Doug Jones won.
Waiting to Lose
I spent most of the day waiting for the time when Google News alerted me, “Associated Press Call Alabama Senate Race for Roy Moore.” Indeed, the first thing I saw was a CBS article that showed that Roy Moore was beating Doug Jones by over ten percentage points. This was when the folks at the Roy Moore campaign headquarters were screaming with excitement. But one who understood the demographics of Alabama probably already knew that Roy was in major trouble.
These early returns were from white and rural areas. If Roy Moore was winning by this little, it meant trouble. And as soon as I read that news, I got a call from Will. He said, “That’s old news! With 92 percent of the vote counted, Doug Jones is winning by one percent, and it seems to just be getting better. Thus, with my phone in one hand, I danced around my room. Good news! Good news for a Democratic supporter! Who would have thought such a thing was possible?!
Hope or Something Like It
I’ve always felt that Emily Dickinson lied. At least, I don’t think she was the kind of person for whom hope flew inside like a bird. But for many, hope is necessary. For me, the tithe works. I will donate and volunteer out of commitment and duty. I question how many people this works for. So others must grab on to hope. Or to anything — anything that works — anything that makes you keep up the struggle. Because that’s what it is all about: the struggle. I know that hope is what keeps Will moving forward, even with a friend like me.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
Do whatever is necessary to keep moving forward. Yes, these are dark times. And it really makes no sense to me how the Republicans can be so successful when all they do is harm 90 percent of their base voters. But if we give up, the nation is lost. It is only with us that democracy and decency survive. Do whatever you need to keep fighting.
My Original Doug Jones Article
Right now, Roy Moore and Doug Jones are deadlocked in the Alabama Senate race. In one way, this is really good: a Democrat might actually become Alabama’s junior Senator. But in another, it’s awful. Roy Moore is clearly guilty of having sexual relationships with high school girls while he was in his 30s, yet most Republicans could not possibly care less.
I ask my fellow countrymen in Alabama, “Are you going to allow this?
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t too much care about the personal lives of politicians. And although I think even flirting with a 14-year-old girl unconscionable, it certainly isn’t something like raping a six-year-old. But even though I’m not even that outraged about hypocrisy, this case is different. This is a man who would never justify such behavior on a defendant who came before him.
I don’t much mind hypocrisy coming from people who show mercy. But Roy Moore shows no mercy. His reading of the Bible makes it a vile document. And I understand, any long religious document like the Bible can be used to say whatever you want. But what you make it say says a whole lot about you. And what it says about Roy Moore is that he is a vile man who should never be given any power.
The Attacks on Doug Jones
It’s been funny to hear the attacks on Doug Jones because we’ve heard these same things so many times before. I especially like this, “He’s weak on crime!” Donald Trump said this. Of course, Donald Trump is the man who still thinks the Central Park Five should have been put to death despite the unquestioned evidence that they are innocent. So for Trump, like most Republicans, being “tough on crime” really just means locking up and killing dark-skinned people.
The thing is, Doug Jones used to be a prosecutor. He was the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. But he prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan members, so I guess that doesn’t count. The Republican Party does almost nothing but harm its base. Just look at the new tax bill. The one thing that the Republican Party does do — and the only reason it has a base — is because it is racist and it tells its base in every way that it is perfectly fine to be racists.
Locking Up the Wrong People
Interestingly, The Daily Beast reported, Doug Jones Locked Up Men Who Did What Women Say Roy Moore Did. But again, none of this matters because the Republicans don’t believe in equal protection. They believe in the kind of government where their allies get to do anything they want while all others are robbed, locked-up, and killed. When listening to Republicans, you have to bear in mind that words mean different things to them. The way almost everyone defines “weak on crime” indicates that Doug Jones is strong on crime. To Republican elites, it’s only people like Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A Rainey who are strong on crime.
Of course, Doug Jones is also accused of wanting to raise taxes. He doesn’t. But this is a very funny criticism coming from a political party that just raised taxes on the poor and middle classes and took healthcare away from 13 million people, all in the name of enriching the already rich.
But most of all, they attack Doug Jones for not being a Republican. He will vote with the Democrats. Well, I guess they’ve got that right. What a horrible thing that would be! To trick the people of Alabama into voting for someone who will actually look out for their interests! The horror!
Where Doug Jones Stands on the Issues
Doug Jones is, literally in a word, a Democrat. He’s pro-choice, but like all other Democrats, it isn’t because he wants to see more abortions. As Anna Almendrala wrote earlier this year, We Already Know How To Safely Reduce Abortions. “Hint: It has nothing to do with restricting access.” If those anti-choice people really want to reduce abortions, they wouldn’t be restricting access to abortion; they’d be increasing access to sex education and birth control — two things they are also against. Regardless, Doug Jones is no radical on this issue. Like most Democrats, he’s just a pragmatist who wants to decrease abortion in the ways that actually work.
When it comes to economic policy, Doug Jones goes right along with Republican voters. Polls consistently show that Republican voters are economically liberal. It’s just that the Republican elite are so good at getting them to focus on things like bad abortion policy, bad immigration policy, and racial animus, that they don’t even think about the economy. Unlike Roy Moore, Doug Jones will vote the way that Republican voters want him to.
When it comes to immigration and the environment, Doug Jones does disagree with a lot of Republicans. But he’s hardly an extremist. And I think that Republicans really need to ask themselves, “How much longer am I going to vote on issues that have no relevance to my life and ignore the issues that do?”
Doug Jones Is No Extremist
The bottom line regarding Doug Jones is that he is no extremist. He’s a politician who will legislate in a way that he thinks will be best for most of the people of Alabama. You can’t say that about Roy Moore or almost any Republican on the national level. Look at the new tax bill: almost every Republican voted to raise taxes on the poor and middle class, and to increase the national debt, just so that they could give more money to the rich.
The fact that Roy Moore is a pedophile is probably enough of a reason not to vote for him. But I think an even bigger reason is that Roy Moore will not do what he thinks is best for the people of Alabama. He will vote for what he thinks is best for his super-rich donors. And if that means allowing children to unnecessarily die from disease so that the Billionaire Class can have even more money, he will do it. And that is even worse than what he was doing to high school girls when he was a 30-something district attorney.
Vote for Doug Jones. See what it’s like to have someone in the Senate who is actually looking out for the interests of the people of Alabama.
I watched Al Franken’s resignation speech on Thursday. It was broadcast live on local news here in Saint Paul. My wife watched the last half of it with me. Like me, she’d been an ardent Franken supporter before he was accused repeatedly of sexual misconduct. The speech seemed sincere, and Franken appeared to be fighting back tears through most of it. He did not admit to abusive sexual behavior, yet he affirmed how all such accusations must be taken seriously.
When his speech ended, my wife said, “At least he didn’t make his wife stand behind him.” And this is true. By announcing live on the Senate floor, Franken avoided using her as a prop, the way so many politicians do at press conferences when pleading innocent to similar charges. (Frannie Franklin was in the gallery, along with the Senator’s soon-to-be-unemployed staff.)
The contradiction was jarring. Here is someone who obviously respects his wife enough not to make her publicly bear his disgrace. And yet his disgrace centered around accounts of demeaning women. Franken’s political service itself remains a contradiction. He was a great Senator for Minnesota, and a good one for America. Yet his personal failings resulted in our losing a key progressive voice, who could work easily with both wings of the Democratic Party, right when such figures are needed the most. His fall almost feels like an abandonment — even if it was deserved.
Did Franken Deserve It?
In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.
In his speech, Al Franken pointed out the irony of his resignation when Republicans are backing politicians accused of far worse — one of whom was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. Feminist writers such as Dahlia Lithwick and Ramona Grigg have defended him to some degree. They have argued that, given such a vast degree of difference between the criminality involved in these accusations, Franken’s resignation represents a gift to the forces of evil.
Make no mistake, Franken’s ouster is the GOP’s gain. There are several highly principled and intelligent individuals Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton can appoint to fill Franken’s seat. (My favorite is apparently not on Dayton’s shortlist.) Yet none would be able to match Franken’s legislative influence. (That’s particularly so as the appointment will only last until next November when a special election will be held.)
However, those accusations — if true — indicate a kind of behavior that cannot be tolerated in any workplace.
Was Franken Guilty?
This is, of course, the pertinent question. The opinions of people in Minnesota are varied. Some believe it’s all slander. Others believe he’s probably gotten away with worse. My opinion is, “I don’t know what happened.”
Eyewitness testimony is, as we know, an unreliable form of evidence. Human memory isn’t that good. And that’s just the beginning. It’s entirely possible that Franken’s alleged groping behavior at photo shoots was accidental. It’s harder to believe the instances of forced kissing were accidents.
The Guardianquoted Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist. He said, “I didn’t know of any of these accusations but he’s a very self-confident person who thinks of himself as special. With some of the accusations you see that: what he felt was being goofy or having his way was clearly unacceptable.”
Self-Confidence or Harassment?
I could see that being the case. Al Franken, after all, got away with books titled Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot and his anti-Fox NewsLies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Those titles were meant to be provocative, and they were. (Unlike similarly-provocative titles “written” by right-wingers, Franken used fact-checkers.) Also, Franken spent years working at Saturday Night Live, described as having a backstage environment where “everyone hates everyone else and is jealous of everyone’s success.”
Where Franken Came From
If you can thrive in the vicious worlds of political polemics and a Lorne Michaels program, you may very well become accustomed to getting away with Alpha behavior that less competitive people rarely display. I’ve had jobs where I was extremely valuable, and I knew it. At that time, I got into heated arguments about how correct my plans were. I cringe now to remember this behavior. I’d hopefully never talk to a colleague like that today.
But no matter the degree of gray areas in accusations against Franken, I believe it was time for him to go.
The Perils Of A Persona
Some politicians (LBJ, any mayor of Chicago) present themselves as tough guys who “know the game.” Consummate insiders. They don’t expect voters to approve of them personally. Instead, they promise to deliver policies the voters want enacted. And they remind us about how the sausage gets made.
That was not Al Franken’s style.
He claims to have had no interest in politics before the death of (still beloved) Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in 2002. Franken said he was particularly incensed by Wellstone’s successor, Norm Coleman, a career opportunist who told one reporter “I am a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone.” He said it while waving a cigar — the very picture of DC corruption.
Al Franken’s Rise
Franken beat Coleman by a handful of votes. But he took office and established a reputation as one of the hardest working, most dedicated liberals in Congress. He frequently toured every last corner of Minnesota, holding town halls even in non-election years. He made nice with local Democratic Party insiders who’d tried their hardest to defeat his primary nomination. When in Washington, Franken would post, on his website, hours where he’d be having coffee in publicly-accessible Senate spaces. If you were in town, you were welcome to join him.
Al Franken’s image was one of absolute political integrity. He was in office, not for power, not to secure some board membership once he’d delivered favors to donors, but to serve his constituents. He was re-elected by a far larger margin. Even some conservative Minnesotans who disagreed with his politics believed in his sincerity.
And so, once the sexual accusations began to accumulate, Franken’s shine was tarnished. (His first, most famous accuser originally said she forgave him; had that been the only instance, he wouldn’t be stepping down.) Even if his statements about “I remember the incident differently” were 100% honest, they sounded exactly like what any other politician would say. Al Franken wasn’t supposed to be like any other politician; he was supposed to be something different.
Come Back, Shane
I bought it. And I’d enjoyed Franken ever since his days on the old Bill Maher program Politically Incorrect. (You remember: back when Maher was willing to let his guests do most of the talking.) I’d heard his radio show; I’d read his books. And Norm Coleman was (And still is!) human slime — your typical ex-liberal who switched sides when it became convenient. He ran one ad which featured an honest-to-God cancer kid; it would have made Elvis Costello sick.
A Personal Recollection of Franken
The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so.
At the time of Franken’s first campaign, I was working at a residential facility for adults with disabilities. We took all of them to the State Fair, as every Minnesotan except me loves the State Fair. We went very, very early in the morning — 6:00 am! — because the crowds are thinner that early, and pushing wheelchairs is difficult in a big crowd.
At one point, we ran into Franken. We were taking a break — it was still early, but we needed coffee — and I spotted Franken similarly caffeine-ing up a few feet away with his wife. I walked over; he looked exhausted. “Hi, I’m sorry to bug you,” I said, “but this guy I know over there is a big politics junkie, and if you could just take a picture…”
Now, that individual isn’t just a politics junkie (which he is, he’ll watch city council meetings on public-access cable), but one of the most outgoing souls I’ve ever known. Half the time he looks like he’s about to die of pure old age right there in his wheelchair. Then he meets someone he’s happy to see, and his whole face glows with joy.
Al Franken came over, got the Joy Face at full strength, and you could see Franken’s spirits lift. A corncob tasting at some unholy hour on a Sunday morning, that’s the drag of campaigning, but the good moments — they’re worth it.
The picture of them together still hangs in that person’s room. When frustration or physical pain or low pay was getting me down at work, sometimes I’d go look at that picture, and remember one time when my feeble efforts helped make someone very happy.
And now that memory is partially ruined.
As is the memory of how much my wife enjoyed listening to Franken’s last book, Giant Of The Senate on CD. She particularly liked Franken talking about how, in that 2008 campaign, his adult children asked him if the opposition would dig anything up they needed to know — and Franken said no, their family was safe from that shame.
The day after my wife finished that book, the first accusations came out. Her response was very angry and straightforward, “He lied to his family.”
The Scum Also Rises
So, quite likely through faults of his own, Al Franken is gone. While worse certainly remain, and worse certainly served a full career without any accountability for their darkest behavior.
In 1995, I was living in Oregon, during the forced resignation of senator Bob “The Tongue” Packwood. (He not only was accused of worse than Franken, he kept a diary about it.) A GOP congressman who pressured Packwood to resign later said, “we had a choice: Retain the Senate seat or retain our honor. We chose honor, and never looked back.” That was Mitch McConnell, current Senate majority leader and apologist for Donald Trump and Roy Moore. Honor, indeed.
Our old friend, Norm Coleman? He’s doing great! He became a lobbyist, naturally, serving all kinds of wonderful clients, including a stint pimping for Saudi Arabia. Now he’s chairman of a Israeli lobbying group (show me the money, honey!) which shared on their website Coleman’s bliss over Trump announcing that America would no longer recognize Palestinian claims on Jerusalem as a historic capital. “No more false news,” Coleman was quoted. (Lord, he can’t even get his dogwhistle catchphrases right.)
This group, the Republican Jewish Coalition, is funded by scumbucket Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. They threw an exclusive gala at the Trump International Hotel in DC Thursday night. What a glorious day for Coleman; knowing how lushly he’s been rewarded for stooping so low, and how disgraced his old opponent was, who tried to behave with such dignity.
Aspirations Aren’t Enough
The man aspiring to good ruined, perhaps deservedly so. The man wallowing in evil triumphant, and certainly not deservedly so. I’ve always liked to believe this recurrent American story would someday change. But I am considerably less hopeful about the possibility than when I used to look at that smiling Al Franken State Fair picture.
I just created a page on Psychotronic Review for the film Demolition Man. It contains two articles. The first one is just a general introduction to the film. The second is about the problems with the film.
It answers the question (using earlier screenplay drafts), "What happened to John Spartan's daughter?" It's the one thing in the film that makes it less than a great psychotronic film. You should check it out!