Politics / Socioculture

Jeffrey St. Clair directs most of his righteous venom at President Barack Obama. But he’s eloquent in describing the sadness of the American condition in general.

“Before he died, Norman Mailer took to lamenting that the American culture was corroding from a bad conscience. The country was warping under the psychic weight of years of illegal wars, torture, official greed, religious prudishness, government surveillance, unsatisfying Viagra-supplemented sex, bland genetically engineered food, crappy jobs, dismal movies, and infantile, corporatized music — all scrolling by in an infinite montage of annoying Tweets. Even the virtual commons of cyberspace had gone solipsistic.
“Corporate capitalism just wasn’t delivering the goods anymore. Not for the bottom 80 percent, any way. The economy was in ruins, mired in what appeared to be a permanent recession. The manufacturing sector had been killed from the inside-out, with millions of well-paying jobs outsourced and nothing but dreary service-sector positions to take their place. Chronic long-term unemployment hovered at more than 10 percent, worse, much worse, in black America. Those who clung to their jobs had seen their wages stagnate, their home values shrivel and were suffocating under merciless mounds of debt. Meanwhile, capital moved in ever-tightening circles among a new odious breed of super-rich, making sweat-free billions from the facile movement of money.
“By 2008, the wistfulness seemed to have evaporated from the American spirit. The country had seen its own government repeatedly prey on its citizens’ fear of the future. Paranoia had become the last growth industry. From the High Sierras to the Blue Ridge, the political landscape was sour and spiteful, the perfect seed-ground for the sprouting of the Tea Party and even ranker and more venomous movements on the American right. These were not the ideological descendents of the fiery libertarian Barry Goldwater. The tea-baggers lacked Goldwater’s western innocence and naive idealism. These suburban populists, by and large, were white, unhappy and aging. Animated by the grim nostalgia for a pre-Lapsarian fantasyland called the Reagan administration, many sensed their station in society slipping inexorably away. They wanted their country back. But back from whom?”
“Instead of blaming corporate outsourcers or predatory bankers, they directed their vindictive impulse toward immigrants and blacks, government workers and teachers, scientists and homosexuals. There’s something profoundly pathetic about the political fatalism of this new species Know-Nothings. But, it must be said, their wrath was mostly pure. This strange consortium of discontent seethed with an inchoate sense of alienation, an acidic despair at the diminished potentialities of life in post-industrial America.”


Movies – Another Earth

A sleeper hit at the most recent Sundance, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth aspires to be one of those ‘contemplate the cosmic wonder of existence while your life is turning to shit’ tough-love, there’s-good-in-everyone tearjerkers. Three or four of these pop up every year, and it’s a standard M.O. for a lot of (lesser) science fiction – things seem hopeless here on earth, but compared to the complexity of the cosmos, and our larger interconnectedness thereof, our little problems are meaningless. We just have to adjust our attitudes, and life in the face of adversity will be fulfilling again.

In ‘Another Earth,’ unfortunately, this involves a complete and utter disregard for taking personal responsibility for committing an avoidable tragedy, as well as a complete and utter disregard for basic science. It takes almost pathological levels of altruism to sympathize with our protagonist (who apparently must be redeemed at all costs) and a complete ignorance of elementary astronomy and metaphysics for its overarching metaphor (a mirror-version of Earth, inhabited by exactly the same people with exactly the same histories) to work. Reasonably bright eighth-grade composition students put more thought, homework and credibility into their stories than co-writers, co-producers and co-creators Brit Marling and Mike Cahill have put into theirs.

Marling plays Rhoda Williams, a high-school senior who is celebrating her acceptance into MIT with partying high-school friends. William Mapother is John Burroughs, a musician and composer on his way home with his pregnant wife and very young son. Then WHAM!! the family’s car is decimated by a drunk driver – the wife and child are killed, and Burroughs spends the next few years in a coma. The drunk driver? Rhoda.

Four years later, Rhoda emerges from prison, and is placed in a job that reflects how far she has irretrievably fallen – high school janitor. She looks up the accident from four years ago and learns that Burroughs still lives in the area. She wants to meet him and, apparently, apologize, for what it’s worth. But she loses her nerve when he appears at his door, and makes up a story that she’s offering to clean his house for a one-day free trial from a local cleaning company. He’s miserable, understandably, and his house, of course, reflects that. She starts cleaning, he likes the idea, and she starts regularly returning to clean while a fragile friendship forms.

Meanwhile, TV and radio continue to report that another planet has entered our solar system. And the closer it gets to us, the more we learn about it; it’s a lot like Earth; later they find it’s identical to Earth (Rhoda squinting at the tiny blue mystery while driving home is a partial explanation for the crash – oh, well that’s not so bad then…). A scientist from SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project at U. of C. Berkeley) sends out radio messages to Earth II and discovers she’s having a conversation with…herself, who is performing the exact same task on the other planet, and has the exact same history as her Earth I counterpart, right down to street names and a childhood trip to Cape Canaveral. And as Rhoda and John’s relationship proceeds, the other Earth looms larger and larger in the sky. ‘If you could meet your other you,’ the official web page asks, ‘what would you say?’

Let’s pause for a moment here, shall we? Burroughs doesn’t know that Rhoda killed his family because her identity was never revealed because she was a minor. But Rhoda got four years of hard time for the offense, seemingly in an adult facility, which is an unheard-of sentence for a juvenile offender, deaths notwithstanding.* He never learned her identity? Was never curious? Really? So the scenario, from the beginning, is a chin-scratcher. But I was far more offended by the idea that she would narcissistically re-enter his life in search of redemption. Maybe I’m a cold and heartless bastard, but my gut reaction was that she should be seeking redemption in what she does with the rest of her life, instead of presumptively intruding on his. What information have we been given about her that justifies this? It’s assumed we’ll cut her some slack because her future was oh-so-bright. Would we take that assumption for granted if our protagonist was male? Or white trash? Or a black woman, or Latina? Perhaps we would, but melancholy-middle-class-willowy-blond-girl tends to substitute here for more thorough character-creation, and that’s too bad.

Burroughs’ life seems to be a grief-counseling-free zone – we emotionally understand how he ended up like this, but there’s no underlying practical context in reality for it – he’s just a free-floating victim, feebly sketched out only to serve the filmmakers’ conceits. It’s to some slim credit that, as things turn out, he’s never asked to forgive her, but her need for connection with this poor fucker, to me, is as unforgivably selfish as the initial tragedy. There’s no attempt or inclination on her part to create something through herself that might be of any value to him at some point later on. And when something like that thing does surface later on, he accepts it for the same self-serving, narcissistic reasons that she offers it in the first place; my personal redemption at your expense.

And about that other planet – how exactly does that work? Where’s the sun that it orbits around? Why haven’t we noticed another sun? What’s the orbit that this planet’s in? Is there another Mars, another Venus, another Mercury? Is it on a much, much larger orbit around a much bigger sun that’s much further away? Why doesn’t that sun affect our solar system? If it’s interdimensional, why are we seeing it now? What’s different? If you’re going to create something to serve as a metaphor, or an ironic anomaly, to our own philosophical or moral condition, based on taking a vague, self-indulgent flyer on multiverse hypotheses, then it also needs the eensiest, teensiest sliver of plausibility. Audiences are pretty generous with their credulity if you make honest attempts to give them even flimsy explanations, but not to bother at all? Because you think your thematic conceit is that cool? It’s a little insulting, frankly.

William Mapother, who plays John Burroughs, is a pro. You’ll recognize him from countless TV guest appearances and film roles. So I consider him blameless in the complete lack of chemistry or believability in the ‘two-hander’ scenario that Cahill and Marling have created. But what’s Marling’s excuse? She co-wrote the damned thing. Cahill is, to be kind, deficient in his ability to elicit credible performances from his actors. The script calls for them to be connecting, and they get up and pretend it’s happening, but we never believe they’re genuinely listening to each other. Don’t even get me started on the pseudo-ascetic subplot involving one of Rhoda’s co-janitors (*slaps forehead, shakes head dismissively*). And, for a guy who cut his teeth on National Geographic documentaries, Cahill’s clearly-paraded cluelessness on camera placement, editing, use of multiple film stocks and visual narrative arc is downright embarrassing.

If this was just a limited-release independent movie from a small distributor, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt for a modest failure and wish them better luck next time. But clearly Fox Searchlight is promoting hell out of this film in a shameless display of Weinstein-style Oscar-baiting. If Cahill and company willfully want to enter this league with their first feature film, then they’ll deserve the critical drubbing that I suspect this film will receive. With a poorly conceived, questionably presented soap-opera-meets-The-Twilight-Zone story, combined with a scientific howler context only an evangelical Republican could love, this film is light years away from what intelligent audiences should buy as serious dramatic entertainment.

‘Another Earth’ opens in Chicago theaters on Friday, July 29th.

*Update 8/29/11 – smarter people than I have pointed out that she would have been incarcerated until her 21st birthday. So her sentence, is, indeed, realistic.

Politics / Socioculture

Remind me – why do we bother voting?

“How would we test the idea that the election of this or that party actually represented the will of the people? Taking a simple example, Gore argued that Bush’s proposed tax cuts would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and the election was not 99-1, but a statistical tie. Obama argues that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest must go, but they’re not going anywhere. Given the dire straits our economy is presently in, and given the outlandish wealth and income disparities that exist in it, why would this issue even be close if the will of the American people had anything to do with it?
“I think the theme for 2012 should be, What’s the Difference?, because for the things that truly matter to the common man or woman, there is none between Bush and Obama, or between Obama and Palin/Bachmann.
“For those wondering what degree of overstatement is intended with the “no difference” remark, here’s a little rundown:
“Bush orders attacks on countries, Obama bombs relentlessly. Bush authorizes torture, Obama winks at it. Bush condones assassination, so does Obama. Bush takes the path to our becoming a national security state, Obama accelerates it. Bush targets whistleblowers, Obama raises it to a first principle. Bush is secretive, Obama more so. Bush prefers to look forward, ignoring history. Obama prefers to look forward, ignoring justice.
“Things are going to happen that are beyond the control of the common man or woman. Least of all will they be able to affect them at the ballot box.”


Well, at least we have committed progressives like Dick Durbin here in Illinois. Wait…what?…

“The Gang of Six — three Republican and three Democratic senators — say their plan would save $3.7 trillion over the next decade, including $500 billion immediately. The proposal includes changes in Social Security and Medicare, and an overhaul of the tax code that would produce $1 trillion in new revenue. Others in Durbin’s group of six are: Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.”


Economics / Politics

MSN Money’s Jim Jubak thinks we’ve been headed towards financial armageddon for years now; the debt-ceiling ‘crisis’ is just the latest wrinkle:

“…even if Congress does come up with a deal that extends the debt ceiling, major damage has already been done to U.S. credibility. Imagine that you’re an overseas investor following the current debate in Washington. You’ve heard U.S. politicians say that a default is better than raising the debt ceiling. You’ve heard statements that have basically challenged you to find another place to put your money. And you’ve seen politicians willing to sacrifice bond investors to short-term domestic politics. Every investor in the world has got to be asking: “How soon can I find an alternative investment for some of my Treasurys?”

“I think we’re looking at a gradual worsening of the U.S. global financial posture. But that doesn’t count as Armageddon, because that’s pretty much what investors have been looking at for years. Do you know anyone who is surprised at this trend?
“My big worry is that the current slow erosion of faith in U.S. Treasurys will turn into a cascade of unanticipated consequences if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Treasurys play a unique role in the global financial markets. They aren’t important only because they’re jammed into so many global portfolios, including the portfolios of so many of the world’s countries. They’re also important because they serve as collateral on a huge percentage of the complex deals that use derivatives to shift risk around the globe.

“The ripples from any default or downgrade of the U.S. credit rating would spread out like this: Investors who lent cash against Treasurys as collateral would require more bonds to back their loans. That would force borrowers to find cash, sell other assets or close their repos and other positions. And that would set off a wave of deleveraging very similar to the one that swept the financial markets in the wake of the Lehman bankruptcy in September 2008. We could get a replay of the credit crunch that almost brought down global financial markets and the global economy in 2008. (And this time the Federal Reserve would be unable to ride to the rescue.)
“As I say, I think this is a remote scenario. But what troubles me is that almost three years after the Lehman bankruptcy, the global financial system remains pretty much the opaque network of undisclosed and unregulated leverage it was then. Very little has changed that would prevent a replay of that crisis.

“When the country remains as angry as it has every right to be about Wall Street’s ability to escape the consequences of the last crisis, I doubt that anyone in Washington wants to remind voters that the folks in D.C. listen to Wall Street and ignore Main Street.”


Economics / Socioculture

Two articles from the other side of the aisle that make a few good arguments, but reach the same tired conclusions.

“We used to have a substantial government size advantage compared to other countries. But Figure 1 shows that while government spending in the United States was about 10 percentage points of GDP smaller than the average OECD country in the past, that gap has now shrunk to just 4 points. A number of high-income nations — such as Australia — now have smaller governments than does the United States.

“This is very troubling because America’s strong growth and high living standards were historically built on our relatively small government. The ongoing surge in federal spending is undoing this competitive advantage that we have enjoyed in the world economy.”


Putting aside the fact that Figure 1. is labeled ‘Figure 2.’ (there is no Figure 1. in the article), this statement makes the standard assumptions that all government spending is evil, unless it’s military spending, and that small government is always, absolutely, preferable to larger; the perfectly content populi of Sweden, the Netherlands, and France might beg to differ; they’re pretty happy with their governments’ health-related policies (although France isn’t generally happy with their new military prowess). They understand they pay higher taxes, but they also have a clearer understanding of where the money’s going. Government social spending in those countries directly improves quality of life; there’s no profit incentive for the private sector to provide these services at the same cost. We always stick microphones in the faces of people who’ve had to wait a few months longer for particular procedures in these countries – no one ever asks them if they understand why they need to wait a little longer (they do), or if they think the entire system should be changed to accommodate their particular case (they don’t). The health care system in the U.S. is so arcane, so overspecialized, so pointlessly complex in order to maximize profit to its private-sector participants, that when you tell people how expensive health care is in the U.S., they don’t understand why; where do my taxes go, then? Well, they go to private-sector middle-men and the necessary bureaucracy needed to make sure the money funneling through them actually goes to real goods and services. Americans aren’t ‘entitled’ to those goods and services; they’ve earned them by surrendering taxes to have that provided to them. If our ‘larger’ government were more transparently administrated, Americans would have a clearer idea of how much of their taxes go to what they really need, and how much is misspent by propping up the middle men. You can still buy private insurance in France, in Germany, in Japan; they just provide a more supplementary function, but those insurance industries are alive and well. In 2009, seven of the top ten global insurance providers weren’t U.S. companies.

Health-care ‘entitlements’ (shitty word, but no better candidates have emerged – benefits? rewards?), along with military spending (a whole other column – *whew*) still make up practically two-thirds of U.S. government spending obligations. But going after ‘entitlements’ isn’t the ‘hard choice’ – it’s the expedient choice. It’s the attention-grabber, the loud noise, the shiny object. I won’t argue that our large government has handled health care policy well – it’s obviously a clusterphuck. But ‘repealing and replacing’ the AFCA is scorched-earth thinking – repealed, replaced (really? With what?) or simply defunded leaves absolutely nothing in its place. Name one genuinely constructive large health care initiative put forward by conservatives in the last thirty years. The Ryan plan? Please

My local office-holder relative is a little more skeptical of this than I am, but, I insist nonetheless; Americans don’t mind paying higher taxes to pay for government spending if they know, and trust, where the money is going.

“Cutting spending would boost the economy because many federal programs have very low or negative returns. Many programs cause severe economic distortions. Other programs damage the environment and restrict individual freedom. And the federal government has expanded into hundreds of areas that would be better left to state and local governments, businesses, charities and individuals.”

This assumes that the aims of government spending are identical to the aims of the private sector. But that’s not true. Businesses, charities and individuals won’t spend their own hard-earned money on these things if the government doesn’t set the example that These Things Are Worth Spending Money On. Progressive government programs don’t expect to profit mightily from promoting social equality, green industries, financial fairness, infrastructure improvement, health and welfare, and high-tech. They’re understandably delighted when the private sector makes their profits from these pursuits (admittedly, education is a whole ‘nother can of worms), and understandably worried when private money is disinterested in investing in them. Just because our government isn’t very good at this doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea in the first place. Would anyone, in any realistic proportion, support arts and culture in this country if not for the imprimatur of the NEA or NEH? Or general quality-of-life issues without the Cabinet departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, Urban Development or Education? Wilmington, Delaware would become Dubai, and their theaters would almost exclusively offer Disney theme-park musicals, Adam Sandler movies and Toby Keith concerts. National literacy rates would plummet (they’re doing a fair job of that now).

Which government programs ‘restrict freedom’ and ‘damage the environment’ (referring to progressive programs, apparently) is beyond me. The pledge-signing, concealed-weapon-carrying invaders of bedrooms, bodies and oil deposits are hardly a constructive alternative to this apparent progressive scourge.

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot here that I agree with, albeit for different reasons:

“The reality is that Washington is very bad at trying to micromanage short-term economic performance. Its failed stimulus actions have just put the nation further into debt, which will harm our long-term prosperity.”

In the long run, inadequate stimulus was worse than no stimulus at all.

“On the revenue side, tax distortions rise rapidly as tax rates rise. On the spending side, funding is allocated to activities with ever lower returns as the government expands. Figure 2. (he means 3., or it should be labeled ‘2.’) illustrates the consequences of the ‘leaky bucket.’ On the left-hand side, tax rates are low and the government initially delivers useful public goods such as crime reduction. Those activities create high returns, so per-capita incomes initially rise as the government grows.
“As the government expands further, it engages in less productive activities. The marginal return from government spending falls and then turns negative. On the right-hand side of the figure, average incomes fall as the government expands. Government in the United States — at more than 40 percent of GDP — is almost certainly on the right-hand side of this figure.
“In his 2008 book, Stealing from Ourselves, Professor Browning concludes that today’s welfare state reduces GDP — or average U.S. incomes — by about 25 percent. That would place us quite far to the right in Figure 2, and it suggests that federal spending cuts would substantially increase U.S. incomes over time.”

I’m not sure how he equates ‘crime prevention’ with ‘high returns’ in terms of actual income – most of what he’s defending are the things that are feeding high crimes – the drug war, covert private-sector military actions, deregulation of financial markets –  but whatever… My problem is how quickly he labels the ‘lower-return’ activities ‘welfare,’ again reinforcing the belief that If It’s Not Profitable, There Are No Reasons To Do It At All. Like the Laffer curve, it illustrates real conditions, but posits the wrong reasons. But I agree with the general premise that if government’s not going to be better at HOW they spend our money, they shouldn’t be spending a lot MORE of our money.

“For example, labeling government spending as “investments” in so-called “green-jobs” is just political spin to cover money-losing investments by elite government bureaucrats with none of their own money on the line who, nonetheless, believe they have an ability to pick winners. But, squandering money on expensive energy gambits reduces our wealth, and therefore shrinks the economy and the number of jobs.”

Over and over, the same drumbeat – if government isn’t For Profit, it’s wasting it’s time and money. And forward-thinking foreign companies eat us for lunch.

“The path to more robust growth is first to stop doing what demonstrably has not worked for the past two years…studies by professors from Harvard to the London School of Economics are providing a growing body of empirical evidence that shows the combination of spending restraint and reductions in tax rates are the best ways to stimulate economic growth and employment.”

God bless those professors, but how is stimulating ‘economic growth and employment’ possible if there’s no demand for those ‘mutually advantageous’ goods and services? In the late eighties, people started talking about ‘B to B’ (business-to-business) and ‘B to C’ (business-to-consumer) business models. As long as we pump up the B to B model here, where the top 2% profit wildly, and let B to C migrate to China, then his proposition is true. But the only thing it’ll stimulate is already-embarrassing levels of income inequality here. And shifting the tax base to reflect that wholly organic outcome is, shamefully, panic-inducing to the B-to-B-ers. Being asked to pay their fair share is ‘punishment for success.’ Riight…

“A second important step would be to prohibit any new regulations, and to get rid of as many useless or counterproductive government mandates as possible. Regulations prevent economic activity that otherwise would take place. And although many are aimed at helping the middle-class and those with lower incomes, new regulations on credit and debit cards are driving up the cost of consumer credit and leading to new fees on checking accounts with less than significant balances.”

That’s because, like conservatives, major corporations won’t rethink and restructure to atone for their own self-inflicted troubles – they’d rather privatize profits and socialize losses, crediting themselves for their good ideas, and moving the burden of their screw-ups to people who had nothing to do with them. J.P. Morgan, just today, announced ‘surprising’ profits. Salaries and bonuses haven’t budged – those at the top are fine. ‘New regulations on credit and debit cards’ are primarily about protecting and ‘helping the middle-class and those with lower incomes’ – it’s the banks that decided to pass those costs onto consumers, rather than choosing to cut back themselves on the kind of ‘welfare’ and operating policies that bankers expect the government to eviscerate.


I keep trying to see these problems constructively from the Right’s viewpoint – economically, socially, culturally, politically. And I’ll keep trying. And trying. And trying. And trying…

Politics / Economics / Socioculture

I understand the liquidity issues that go into cutting those millions of checks, but I think stating this as he did is a major miscalculation by Obama. Progressives have been arguing for months and months that Social Security does not directly impact the debt. Yet one of the first things Obama admits will be impacted by not raising the ceiling is… Social Security. That’s going to pop all sorts of balloons among the punditry and the blogosphere. Social Security, theoretically, is drawing its funds from an independent trust that its recipients have already paid into. To admit that there won’t be money in the federal budget to cover those checks is a concession to the Republican arguments that Social Security is the federal budget’s pair of concrete slippers they say it is, a concession to their argument that Social Security ‘coffers’ are filled with IOUs. I’m, frankly, surprised that conservatives haven’t jumped all over this.