Archive for February, 2014

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Film Review

February 27, 2014

imagesOK, so we’re a little behind in reviewing flicks, and this one dates from the eighties. But we thought we had to see it because it’s such an iconic classic (also, I’d used a line from it in a prior blog post; though it turns out the line wasn’t exactly in the movie).

For similar reasons we also recently viewed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That was quite lame and we bailed long before the end. But Bill and Ted was, well, excellent, dudes.

If you’ve ever wanted to catch Socrates and Sigmund Freud images-5trying to pick up chicks in a mall, this film’s for you.

So Bill and Ted are these loser high school dudes, into playing music, though without proper instruments (or talent), about to flunk history, which is majorly a bummer because Ted’s dad will then pack him off to military school, in Alaska. What they need is a classic deus ex machina, which indeed is exactly what turns up, in the form of one Rufus (played by George Carlin) from the 27th century, by time machine, to save their asses, because their music-to-be is, like, the foundation of the whole future civilization; but that requires acing their final history report and thus staying together.

Napoleon Bowling

Napoleon — Dynamite Bowler

So Rufus sends them in another time machine (in the form of a telephone booth – showing how archaic this movie is) to round up a gang of historical biggies – Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, Napoleon, Freud, Joan of Arc (not Noah’s wife), and Lincoln – to jazz up the lads’ history report.

If this sounds pretty idiotic, it is. A highbrow cinematic experience Bill and Ted is not. But the film, and its makers, to their credit, were not trying to be something they weren’t. Yet it displays considerable panache and is genuinely funny.

Of course, the adventures through history are hokey to the max, and include some obligatory close shaves with various murderous baddies. Socrates, Lincoln, et al, seem only mildly nonplussed at being whisked into this mayhem; they cheerfully get with the program and even do their bits in Bill and Ted’s eventual history report, presented on stage in the school auditorium. The peroration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg-like address is the immortal line, “Party on, Dudes!” images-1

Plausibility is somewhat lacking. At least they didn’t have Socrates and Genghis speaking English.

With which Bill and Ted themselves are none too fluent. The film has some fun with their ignorant mispronunciations, like “Frood” for Freud and “So-craits” for Socrates. images-4But the joke is on us when the latter corrects them and says his name not as “SOCK-ra-teez” but “So-CRAH-tess” – probably more authentic.

The movie also has fun with the paradoxes of time travel. Early on, Bill and Ted meet their time-traveling selves of a few hours hence. But later, when they duly do arrive back at that scene, they don’t seem to remember it; yet of course they deliver the same lines they’d already heard.

Better yet, at a critical juncture, the lads need Ted’s father’s keys. But he’d lost them. Well, no problem – they can just go, in the time machine, back to get the keys before they went missing. However, they’re running late, and realize they can do it afterwards – go back later, get the keys, and hide them behind a signboard where they can find them now. And sure enough, they look behind the signboard, and there are the keys.

But they’d better remember to go back later and put them there. The film ends without telling us whether they did. But, of course, they must have.

We give this film four stars. images-6

Ukraine’s Revolution: It’s 1989 Again

February 23, 2014

        “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

                      — Martin Luther King

imagesMy favorite year was 1989. Today, in Ukraine, it’s 1989 again – complete with toppling Lenin statues. (Yes, inexplicably, they still had them.)

I’m thrilled, but I won’t get carried away.  These stories don’t always play out well. Egypt is certainly a sobering case in point. Russia had a revolution in 1991 and wound up Putinized. And Ukraine itself had its “Orange Revolution” that turned out poorly. But this one looks much more like the real thing.

Though it’s a volatile situation. While Yanukovych’s support in the country as a whole is shredded, he still has a base in the Russified east and could still continue or even escalate the bloodshed. If those easterners actually want to be ruled by a thoroughly corrupt murderous thug, subservient to another thoroughly corrupt murderous thug in the Kremlin, maybe they should be allowed to enjoy it. images-1But a preferable outcome would be Yanukovych put on a trial for his crimes and swiftly executed, a-la-Ceausescu 1989. Let him be the final victim of the violence he unleashed.

Meantime, there are some lessons. One is that this is the Twenty-first Century. And in this century, bad guys can’t get away with what they used to. Or at least they sure can’t count on it. Time was, if you just shot enough people, you’d be home free. It worked in Tiananmen Square. It may be working in Syria. But it didn’t work in Ukraine’s Maidan Square. This is progress. The world is improving.  Though it’s a darn shame a lot of Ukrainians had to get shot before the shooting was seen to fail.

It failed because Ukrainians — enough of them at least — understand that they needn’t tolerate it any more. They’ve read Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man. They insist on having a normal modern free country, not some sorry-ass replica of Putin’s Russia. (Maybe someday enough Russians will too.)

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister whom Yanukovych beat in the last presidential election, has been released from 2-1/2 years imprisonment on bogus corruption charges, and says she will run for president again. Perhaps her election platform should be a simple one: “No shooting.”

Another lesson is this: nonviolence is all well and good, but sometimes there are things worth fighting for, and sometimes you do have to fight. Otherwise you hand the world over to thugs like Yanukovych with no scruples about using violence to gain their ends. It’s a tragic reality that passive nonviolence may not cut it in such cases.

Ukraine has had its revolution thanks to courageous people willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it. I melt in reverence toward such heroic people. UnknownI’m a big talker when it comes to issues of freedom and democracy, but would I have been willing to go into Maidan Square in freezing cold to face hard men with clubs and guns? I don’t think so.

Obamacare, Jobs, and La-La Land

February 19, 2014

So you’ve heard that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now estimates 2.3 million fewer people working by 2021, due to Obamacare.

imagesRepublicans gleefully said, “See? It’s a job-killer.” Wrong, retorted Democrats, the jobs are not going away – rather, it’s people being able to leave those jobs, and still get health insurance.

In fact, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and White House spokesman Jay Carney positively rhapsodized about this, as a wonderful liberation. No longer would folks be shackled to their jobs (to have health insurance), they’d gain the freedom to quit and pursue their hearts’ desires, like poetry and art; or, indeed, to retire early and do nothing at all. Economist Paul Krugman says people making this choice are to be congratulated. After all, aren’t conservatives always prattling about freedom of choice? Welcome to Nirvana!

images-1Or is it La-La Land? Sorry to be the skunk at this party – and I’m all for poetry and art – but who is going to support these 2.3 million new poets and artists? UnknownAssuming it won’t likely be consumers of their oeuvre, it will have to be – guess who – people still actually working dreary old jobs.

Think about it. Ultimately all the people getting pensions and Social Security and Medicare (no, you did not pay for it throughout your working life; not much of it anyway) and Disability and welfare and food stamps and child support and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and now subsidized health insurance and poets-and-artists-benefit and so on and so forth – all that must be paid for by people still creating wealth to be taxed, by doing productive work. If any are left.

This is what the Pelosis and Carneys and Krugmans, et al, living in their liberal La-La Land, don’t get. images-2Their recent absurd spin on the CBO report shows how mixed up they are. The self-styled party of working people actually thinks people not working is a good thing. The more the better.

I have shouted myself hoarse about America’s key economic problem: a decreasing percentage of people in productive employment supporting a growing percentage not working. This imbalance can only worsen as Baby Boomers retire and longevity continues rising. This will mean government shelling out ever more and collecting less in taxes, with borrowings hence rising to unsustainably ruinous levels.

Unknown-1We cross our fingers that somehow, economic growth will rev up to get us out of this mess. But where will economic growth come from with an ever smaller population segment that’s working? (You may say we lack the jobs. Not exactly true. What we increasingly lack is the skills needed to work productively in today’s world. That’s why “Disability” rolls keep growing, as I’ve discussed.)

Willfully ignoring the true predicament makes President Obama’s reign disastrous. Indeed, his “signature” policy achievement worsens the problem. Obamacare will raise government spending (increasingly, as the young and healthy refuse to overpay to subsidize the old and sick); while incentivizing businesses to limit payrolls (in order to avoid some onerous requirements that kick in at 50 full-time employees) – and disincentivizing work, by tying more government benefits to income, and also (per the CBO report), by giving folks cheap government-subsidized health insurance without having a job at all. If it pays less to work, people will do less of it. (And raising minimum wages isn’t the answer, as I’ve explained. Where’s the money for that to come from, if not other working people’s pockets?)

Incidentally, what would help is immigration reform. Ironically, many Americans hate immigration because they think it’s bad for jobs, when in fact we desperately need more young workers. I’m not talking about Mexican lawn-mowers; it’s much more about technology hot-shots from India, kept out by our suicidally restrictive immigration regime.

images-4I’m still an optimist – about humanity as a whole. About America – not so much. I love this wonderful country deeply, and weep at how we’re sleepwalking to its destruction.

Women, Bad Boys, and Contingency in Life

February 14, 2014

images-2My Valentine’s Day post–

I’ve written before of my difficulties getting it on with women. Being such a rationalist, I thought the way to go about it was to treat them nicely. Silly clueless me. I didn’t grasp the attraction of bad boys. Excitement. Danger. Trouble. It can be like catnip to women. But I was constitutionally incapable of acting the bad boy. Except for one time . . . .

In April 1975, I had a dental appointment. The usual receptionist was away; the dentist’s young daughter was filling in. UnknownShe seemed pleasant. So after the novocain wore off, I phoned and asked her out. Her name was Pam.

Now, what I mean by “contingency” is how our lives hang by slender threads of probability – or, rather, improbability. Of course it was chance that the receptionist was out that day. And I was seeing that dentist only because, years before, I’d happened to date a girl named Noreen, and somehow the subject came up, and she’d recommended him.

Unknown-1More contingency: on the First of that April in ’75 (“hardly a man is now alive”), while out walking, I had seen a girl shlepping stuff. Maybe fifteen seconds, either way, and our paths wouldn’t have crossed. But they did, she looked hot, so I offered to help her, moving into a big apartment building on my block, that was full of single girls. Its official name was “The Willett.” I called it the Cockteaser Building.

So I pestered this chick, Donna, for a date, she was indifferent, but eventually let me take her to a party she wanted to go to. images-3Soon after our arrival, Donna was draped in the lap of another guy. Soon after that, I told her I’d called a cab. Our ride back was silent.

I am deeply ashamed to say I nevertheless continued to pursue Donna. (She was a looker.) I took her out to dinner. She brought a book along. I said, “You must be expecting a dull evening.” And indeed, at the restaurant, she opened the book. I told her to put it away, and she complied; but again silence descended. Back at the Cockteaser Building, I finally gave Donna my candid evaluation. She just shrugged and walked away.

Contingency: this whole Donna debacle was significant only because at that party, the host, seeing the situation, had taken me aside, and said, “This girl’s no good. I know someone better for you.”

Unknown-3Her name was Christina, and she was a whirlwind entering my life. Our relationship seemed to go off like fireworks.

Now, remember Pam, the dentist’s daughter? My date with her hadn’t yet happened. But so bedazzled by Christina was I, that I decided to just blow off Pam. I called her and cancelled – and gave the reason with insouciant, brutal candor. “You’ll survive,” I may even have said. Totally out of character.

Well, needless to say, the Christina thing, having gone off like a firecracker, quickly fizzled out like one. Unknown-6Leaving me, a month later, sitting glumly and very much alone in my room.

The phone rings. “Hi, it’s Pam,” the cheery voice says. Why on Earth would  she be calling me? But, after some meaningless chit-chat, she asks me out.

No girl had ever done that. And none had I ever treated so callously. Christina’s mind-warping effect had turned me, momentarily at least, into a bad boy – and that made me (in contrast to my normal milquetoast persona) intriguing and attractive to Pam. She’d apparently spent the ensuing month obsessing about me and psyching herself up for her wildly gutsy phone call.

So my relationship with Pam started on a completely different footing from any preceding one. And, unlike all those others, it lasted – twelve years.

Not all of those years were wonderful. Ten were not. Two were excruciating. But they got me to the place where, on May 2, 1988, I found the girl of my dreams and the love of my life, Therese.

imagesContingency: Noreen, Donna, Christina, Pam, Therese. Every link in the chain was necessary. No Noreen, no dentist; no Donna, no Christina; no Christina, no bad boy; no bad boy, no 12 years of Pam; no 12 years, no Therese.* Thank you, Donna!

Oh; and yes, Therese lived in the Cockteaser Building. And no, I didn’t act the bad boy with her.

* There was actually a further contingency: after Pam left, I came within a half inch of marrying someone else; only a fluke intervened. But that’s another story.

More New York Legislative Slime: Senator Jeff Klein

February 11, 2014

I’ve written before about corruption and cringeworthy behavior in our New York legislature.

Despite a heavy Democratic enrollment edge, Republicans have managed to cling to control of the State Senate by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Well, at least it has kept New York from being a one-party state.

As of 2012, Republicans had a bare 32 of 62 Senate seats. But fearing loss of a seat, they created a sixty-third one (of dubious constitutionality) tailored for their hand-picked candidate to win. But then Democrats outside the district threw in a ton of money, and pulled out an 18-vote squeaker for their candidate, Cecilia Tkaczyk (pronounced “Gotcha”).

Giving the Democrats a clear 32-31 Senate majority. You would think. But this is New York.

Senator Klein

Senator Klein

So Bronx Democratic Senator Jeff Klein organizes an “independent Democratic caucus” group of a few colleagues (one of whom he’s sleeping with) and makes a deal with the Republicans to share power and shut out all the other Democrats. In normal politics this would be considered utterly treasonous to both his party and the voters who seemingly elected a Democrat majority. But this is New York, and they get away with this slimy maneuver.

Klein claims this has nothing to do with personal ambition or power; it’s only to advance his policy concerns. Sure. And that money under your pillow was left by the Tooth Fairy.images-1

So now Klein has sponsored a bill that would require all wine sold in the state to have been warehoused in New York for at least 24 hours. Just another idiotic regulation that pointlessly hobbles commerce, you might think; just part of government’s never-ending war against (small) business. But such legislation never comes out of the blue. There is always some interest to be served.

Klein’s office insists the bill is aimed at job creation. There’s that Tooth Fairy again. The truth: most wine distributors happen to have their warehouses in New Jersey, near the port where much wine arrives. They’ll be screwed. But one big distributor – Empire Merchants – already has warehouses in New York. Thus the bill would handicap Empire’s smaller competitors, maybe drive them out of business, which would limit the wine choices available to New York consumers, and raise prices. All to Empire’s benefit, and the public’s detriment. (And as if you do “job creation” by forcing businesses to add unneeded warehouses.)

"I'm shocked, shocked..."

“I’m shocked, shocked…”

And guess what? Since 2009, Empire has handed Jeff Klein $53,000 in campaign contributions;  and given to a wide range of other elected officials, including $259,850 to Governor Cuomo (who’d have to sign the bill).

When a contributor gives money to an official whose stances the contributor likes, that’s called politics. When there’s a specific bill created to benefit that contributor, against the public good, it’s called BRIBERY. I’m shocked, shocked, that corruption is taking place in this legislature.

I credit the Albany Times-Union’s Chris Churchill for exposing this cesspool.

“Inequality For All”

February 6, 2014

Unknown-2Robert Reich’s film, Inequality For All, spotlights a problem that’s real. But it’s very complex, with no simple answers (“tax the rich;” raise minimum wages).

I’ll start with some points of agreement. Moneyed interests, because their money inevitably confers political power, corruptly milk the government teat to extract still more wealth from the economy. But the answer is not to restrict political participation (via campaign money). That would be incompatible with our free democratic society. Instead we must broaden participation, with a campaign finance reform like a tax credit for small political contributions, so they’ll proliferate and counter the impact of big donors.

imagesI also agree with Reich that CEO pay is out of whack. It’s set by the corporate board of directors – which tends to be packed with fellow CEOs. What’s wrong with that system?

And I agree that the rich should pay their fair share of taxes — though it’s far from clear they don’t already. The top 5% of taxpayers pay half of all income tax; the top 1% pay over 30% of it. UnknownStill, too many rich folks do get off too lightly; and tax rates in general must rise if we want  to continue funding Social Security and Medicare (which should be curbed for the rich).

Now, Reich maintains (like several recent books, e.g., The Spirit Level) that rising inequality is bad not just for the losers but for everyone. An oft-heard theme is that it tears society apart; however, in America at least, resentment against the rich is uncommon. Most still believe the American dream of upward mobility, and (rightly) don’t buy the left’s idea that the rich get wealth at others’ expense. Reich does make a fair point that the rich spend less of their income on consumer goods (you only need one car, even if a Porsche), so wealth concentrated in fewer hands means less consumer spending, hurting the economy. However, the rich do invest their money (economically beneficial; though not necessarily in the U.S.), and ultimately give away gobs of it. And it’s a dubious assumption that if the rich had less money, others would have more.

This is important. The left thinks there is a lump of wealth to be (more fairly) divided up. Not so; wealth is created by productive effort. Steve Jobs’s wealth essentially represented the difference between what his products cost to make and the prices people gladly paid for them. That added value made everyone richer. Had Jobs never existed, his wealth would not have been spread among the rest of us; it would never have existed either!

images-1A centerpiece of Reich’s case is a graph showing that until the 1970s, productivity and wages rose in tandem, but since then wages have stagnated even while productivity continued upward. Thus working people stopped benefiting from new productivity gains.

It’s not exactly true. One problem is that wages are only part of employee compensation. “Fringe” benefits are ignored, the biggie being health care. What’s happened is that a major part of earnings has taken the form of increasingly costly and valuable health benefits. If those are counted, incomes have not stagnated.

Secondly, the graph shows inflation-adjusted wages. As it should – except that economists know standard government indices tend to overstate the true inflation rate. (This is behind current battles over how to calculate cost-of-living adjustments.) Those indices don’t keep up with the changing mix of what people buy and, importantly, ignore changing quality. For example, the inflation rate might reflect rising car prices, but not improved safety, fuel efficiency, and durability, over the decades. A truer (and smaller) inflation adjustment would show real-dollar wages rising more than on Reich’s chart.

Another way to see it is even if wages haven’t risen, average living standards have: all that health care translates into a better quality (and length!) of life; cars are better as noted; and just look at the explosion in what people do with rising computer power and other communications and technological advances. All this amounts to a very real wealth gain, missed by a simple graph of wages.

A further element missing from Reich’s picture is pensions and related benefits. He suggests that in the postwar decades, strong labor unions were able to capture for workers a fair share of productivity gains; but then union power waned. However, during that period of labor strength, not only fat pay packets were negotiated, but fat pensions too. With rising longevity, we’re still paying for them. images-2I’ve written before about our growing imbalance between working and non-working people. In fact we’re seeing a massive wealth transfer from the former to the latter, in the form of pensions, Social Security, Disability, Medicare, and so forth. If Reich is right that workers are capturing a smaller slice of the economic pie, one key factor is non-working people capturing a larger slice!

This is relevant to a further aspect of Reich’s presentation. He stresses that in the halcyon period, government invested heavily in infrastructure and, particularly, education; with positive economic benefits, raising incomes, and hence tax takes, to be used for more investment: a virtuous circle. Now he sees a vicious circle of declining investments of that kind. But a huge reason why governments at all levels can’t do what they used to is pensions and health benefits and so forth soaking up all the available money (in fact, more than that). It’s exemplified by Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Reich thinks the problem is working people not earning enough. I think it’s not enough people working.

But he’s right about this: education is crucial. A major factor (if not the major factor) in rising inequality is that the rewards for high education and skill levels are growing, as are the penalties for low levels. While the rap is that corporations fatten profits by keeping pay down, they can’t be expected to pay anyone more than they have to. Hot-shots with valuable skills command high pay, but for low-skilled work it’s a buyer’s market. There are more such workers than are needed; they bring nothing to the table to make businesses compete for their labor. Raising minimum wages is not some magic wand that will change this economic reality. Making low-skill labor more costly would only hasten the trend to substitute technology for it.

Unknown-1Thus our society is increasingly divided between a highly educated, skilled, affluent elite, and a less educated, unskilled proletariat that cannot be productive in today’s increasingly technological and globalized world. That’s the inequality we must combat.

The Inequality Obsession

February 3, 2014

imagesContinuing my discussion of George Kennan’s book (see previous post), he also addressed inequality.  So have I (here, here, and here; maybe thus my own obsession). And we recently viewed ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s film, Inequality For All. See how open-minded I am? It’s actually a good film and I’m in sympathy with much of it. I’ll discuss it in a separate post.

George Kennan said nothing has been more “totally disproved by actual experience than the assumption that if a few people could be prevented from living well everyone would live better.” This derived from his observing (as a diplomat) communist countries, where eliminating the rich was accompanied by impoverishing the rest. Yet that poverty was, for most people, made endurable by its being widely shared. And, after communism’s collapse, anyone’s effort to better their situation through enterprise was widely resented and opposed, as illegitimate.

UnknownI was reminded of the old Russian tale of the peasant granted one wish – with the proviso that whatever he got, his neighbor would get double. After long thought, the peasant says: “Take out one eye!” That psychology is relevant to the inequality obsession.

Is it unjust for one person to have more than another? Some seem to think so, or at least talk that way. But if the concept of justice means anything, it means outcomes earned and deserved, rather than meted out arbitrarily – and pure egalitarianism would entail the latter rather than the former. I recognize that there’s inevitably some element of luck in outcomes; but egalitarian obsessives seem unwilling to recognize an element of deservingness; that a person who works harder and/or smarter and lives more prudently should be richer.

images-1In fact, there’s a widespread idea (here’s an example) that wealth and deservingness are inversely correlated – that not only don’t the rich deserve what they have, it’s actually the fruit of evil. All the more reason to see redistribution as social justice.

However, while of course a few people are thieves, most rich folks get their money through making a societal contribution of one sort or another. Unknown-1When you buy a yogurt at the grocery, you’re not ripped off; you’re getting something worth more to you than the price paid (or else you wouldn’t buy it). The grocer, and the yogurt maker (and everyone else involved, e.g., in transporting it), who give you this boon, profit justly. That’s the reality of most economic transactions and relations.

images-3We recently saw a TV documentary showing all that goes into manufacturing a certain monster truck. So many people working with such skill and attention to detail, to make sure that truck will do its job safely and well. It was really impressive. If they earn good pay, and their company earns good profits, they deserve it. This is the true face of business. It’s why all the rantings about the “evils of capitalism,” and the idea that wealth is obtained at the expense of the poor or society, miss the mark. The businesses you get yogurt from don’t profit at your expense, but by satisfying your needs and wants. Same for the truck manufacturer.

Inequality is rising not because more people are becoming poor, but because more are becoming rich; in particular, more very rich. That’s not a problem as long as everyone has a decent living standard. This we can achieve without exterminating great wealth. Indeed, the wealthy pay a disproportionate share of taxes that fund the social safety net.

Yet the obsession over inequality is not mainly a concern for the welfare of the poor. It is instead all about the rich. Lefties cannot stand it that they, with all their social consciousness and moral virtue, have less wealth, and consequently less power and influence, than benighted toads who (they think) are ethically inferior and get rich through grubby commerce. images-4To quote Kennan: “one cannot evade the occasional suspicion that it is not such much sympathy for the underdog that inspires much of this critical enthusiasm as a desire to tear down those who preempt the pinnacles of status to which they themselves aspire.”

(To be continued)