Why Are We Suddenly Winning?

 | 

There was a recent miracle in Wisconsin, and it is the kind of miracle that merits some reflection.

After facing the fury of the public employees for weeks, Scott Walker, Republican governor of Wisconsin, was able to sign into law restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of state employees. This was the bill that the Republicans in the state legislature had managed to pass even while the Democrats in the state senate were hiding out of state, attempting to deny them a quorum).

It was miraculous enough that the Governor and the Republican legislators hung tough in the face of the union-orchestrated onslaught of confrontational — nay, hysterical — demonstrations by spoiled teachers, duped school kids, poseur leftist college students, and union rent-a-goons (all apparently unchecked by sympathetic cops), not to mention a massive ad blitz portraying the Republicans as subhuman brutes bereft of all compassion.

But after the bill was signed, the unions went to the Left’s time-tested Plan B: use the court system to get what you want. And fortuitously for the unions, there was an election for a seat on the state Supreme Court, in which fairly conservative Justice David Prossner was up for reelection. Unions plowed an astounding $3.5 million into defeating Prossner and electing their chosen tool, JoAnne Kloppenberg, who made it clear that if elected she would rule the troublesome law unconstitutional. It was an egregious display of a complete lack of judicial temperament, not to mention intellectual integrity.

The race promised to be close — remember, another of the time-tested tools of leftist unions is to use their organizational power and endless dues money to win off-year elections, relying on the fact that the rationally ignorant taxpayer is usually too preoccupied with other things—such as actually having to work for a living — to vote in minor elections.

Initial reports showed that the union stooge had squeaked out a victory — she even went on TV to crow about it. But then another miracle occurred: during the certification process, County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus discovered that the City of Brookfield’s votes had not been counted into the statewide total. When they were, it turned out that Prossner won going away, with a margin large enough that the usual Democratic election-stealing tactics (finding a few mysterious votes that appeared to be cancelled ballots, for example) won’t work to reverse it.

This is a huge setback for organized labor in particular, and the Left in general. Be crystal clear on this: if organized labor can’t count on winning an off-year election in a blue state after spending millions of dollars and rallying its myrmidons to march, scream, and vote in lockstep, it is in very profound trouble.

Why? What accounts for all these developments?

Several recent stories help us understand why rightist Republicans, usually pathetically lacking in anything remotely resembling electoral savvy and political street-smarts, are beginning to achieve some measure of success in enacting their agenda. The stories have to do with the looming approach of the public choice tipping point  — the point at which rational ignorance ceases to be rational.

The first is a nice article by libertarian economist and all-around BFB (brilliant French babe) Veronique de Rugy. She brings to our notice the growth of that glorious illustration of the law of unintended consequences, the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax).

The AMT was passed by a hysterical Congress back in 1969, when it was discovered that about 150 wealthy Americans were — gasp! — using legal deductions to avoid paying taxes. (Ironically, most were elderly people who had put their money in tax-free municipal bonds, bonds that, of course, fund government.)  Under the AMT, certain higher-income taxpayers must file two tax forms, the regular form, and the AMT form. If the latter shows that they owe more than they would if they used the regular form, they have to cough up the difference.

The Governor and the Republican legislators hung tough in the face of hysterical demonstrations by spoiled teachers, duped school kids, poseur leftist college students, and union rent-a-goons.

The cruel joke on the taxpayer is that the AMT was never indexed for inflation, so as each year passes it molests more and more taxpayers. In fact, the number of hapless filers hit by the AMT rose from a couple of hundred in 1970 to about a half-million in 1979 to 4.5 million in 2009.  In that year, Congress had to pass a short-term patch, so that in 2010 the number of taxpayers eligible to be AMT’d wouldn’t rise to 27 million! No doubt the taxpayers who would be targeted were made aware of this by their accountants, and pressured Congress to stop it.

The second article is a superb piece by the SAG (smart American guy) Stephen Moore. Moore contends (rightly, in my view) that “we’ve become a nation of takers, not makers.” He mentions a number of statistics that illustrate this.

There are now nearly two government workers for every worker in manufacturing (22.5 million versus 11.5 million). He notes that back in 1960, there were 15 million workers in manufacturing versus only 8.7 million in government. To put this in another way, we have more people working for government “than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining, and utilities combined.” Almost half of the combined $2.2 trillion that state and municipal governments cost taxpayers every year is spent on public employee pay and benefits, including pensions. (Moore doesn’t note the fact that this outlay will soon explode, as the Baby Boomers retire.)

California now has twice as many government workers as workers in manufacturing. New Jersey has two and a half times as many. Florida and New York stand at about three to one, government to manufacturing. Even more amazing, Iowa and Nebraska — classic farm states — now have five times as many government workers as farmers.

Pointing to recent surveys of college grads, which show that these people would rather work in government than in private industry, Moore makes the devastating point: “When 23-year-olds aren’t willing to take career risks, we have a real problem on our hands. Sadly, we could end up with a generation of Americans who want to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles.”

A third article illustrates the reason for the attractions of government work. This New York Times piece reports on a growing practice of government workers — retiring on full pension and immediately going back to work; in effect, double dipping. In true Times fashion, it builds the story around a human sample case, one Carlos Bejarano, who is the superintendent of an Arizona school district of about 7,000 students in grades K through 8.

In the middle of a fiscal crisis, in which the district is planning to lay off staff and close two schools because of economic hard times, Bejarano will retire, this year, on a pension of $100,000 per annum — but will continue at his existing job. Oh, by the way, his job pays a modest $130,000 a year, plus health and other benefits, that come to a total of about $150,000 yearly. At one hearing about the school closings, an outraged citizen sputtered out, “How dare you?”

Cases like this are legion, and the populace is beginning to know it. Try explaining to the average worker why he is paid a fraction of Mr. Bejarano’s wage, and has a 401k instead of a defined-benefit pension, or is even unemployed, while his taxes go to pay some public school administrator what Bejarano makes. Good luck.

So there you have it. These stories illustrate what I think is driving the increasing boldness of the Republicans. People are becoming ever more aware of the possible increase in their taxes, and there is increasing awareness of how vast government has become, and how often these multitudes of government workers are ridiculously overcompensated. It is this growing awareness that is changing the rules of the game — changing it from a game that favors “progressive” liberals to one that just might favor classical liberals.




Share This


Appreciation of Depreciation

 | 

Everything depreciates; even the IRS realizes this truism. They realize that your rental property is falling apart as time assaults its clapboard shingles. Even our bodies lose value, though the taxpeople grant no deductions for our annual, inarguable loss of strength, stamina, beauty, or the mental assets whereby we make our living.

Wouldn’t it be a political masterstroke for the Obama healthcare crazies to add that earmark to their bill — bodily depreciation? Rental houses decline, and so do structures of bone and flesh. You don’t believe me? Take a good look at Nancy Pelosi.

Consider your shiny new car — drive it a year and it has lost 30% of its value. And how ’bout your new $40 sweater? At the garage sale you’ll be lucky to get five bucks. And let’s not even talk about underwear. One day’s use and it’s worthless. Oh, maybe five cents as a rag.

But of all the products of our civilization, nothing loses monetary value like books. I learned this lesson in economics at our Charlotte branch library. Books initially listed at 25 bucks could be purchased for a mere quarter of a dollar. What a remarkable decline! And think of it. Unlike the car, TV, sweater, or underwear, the books are functionally brand new — just as useful as the day they were printed. Sometimes they're even more so, with helpful notes that some previous reader scribbled in the margin. And better yet, if you're really lucky, sweet little notes and inscriptions: “Christmas 1945: Rob, Hope you return by June." "This book — see page 6 — expressed my feeling for you! All my love, Betty.” I often wonder why Betty didn’t save $19.95 and enhance her poetic reputation by simply copying page 6, changing a few names, and sending Rob a handwritten note.

You never know what you’ll find. I had an overnight guest who searched my library for bedtime reading and randomly picked the “bank” where we kept stray greenbacks for a household emergency. He didn’t get to finish the book, he said — could he borrow it? We switched him to a safer book.

Everything depreciates, including — it hurts me to say this — love, though nobody has calculated a percentage acceptable to the IRS. Too many variables. The only exceptions may be wine and super-aged antiques. I guarantee you that my iMac, 50 years hence, will gain additional value (the patina of age, you know), as compared with the items in my kitchen pantry: green cheese, curdled milk, and purple veal chops.

And then there are cars. First, a giant decline in value, beginning with the drive out of the showroom; then a continuing decline as you pile up miles. But somewhere in its automotive lifecycle, a car becomes a nonpareil gem, worth more than you paid for it. Buy and hold.




Share This


The Thin Blue Line

 | 

Maricopa County (AZ) sheriff Joe Arpaio has done it again.

If you’re familiar with the sheriff’s methods, that “it” has you uneasy even before you click the link. What did he do this time? Is the “it” an old favorite, such as forcing an illegal immigrant to give birth while shackled, hunting illegals in the desert from behind the turret of a .50-caliber machine gun, or defending his prison guards after their fatal battering of a mentally retarded man accused of misdemeanor loitering? Or is this “it” a newly-devised offense against both Constitution and decency?

Unfortunately for everyone under his jurisdiction, it’s the latter. In late March Sheriff Joe mobilized his tank, his armored troop carriers, his SWAT platoon, and his bomb-defusing robot, in order to serve a warrant on Jesus Llovera, a man with no felony convictions and no history of owning or even displaying any weapons. Llovera’s alleged crime? Breeding birds for cockfighting.

Now, Llovera does have one prior on his record: a misdemeanor for attending a cockfight. And he did have 115 of the birds on his property (all of which, rather needlessly, were put to sleep during the raid) that were more than likely intended for similarly cruel spectacles. So this is a bit more focused than when Arpaio raids retail stores on the off chance that some of their employees lack visas. But even with probable cause and a legally obtained warrant to serve, what could possibly justify such an ostentatious show of force?

For Arpaio, the answer is always simple — and certainly has nothing to do with any book of local, state, or federal law. No, what Sheriff Joe craves is the spotlight, and he will do anything — any “it” — to get himself in front of the cameras. In this case, the “it” he did was to organize this whole raid in order that C-list celebrity Steven Seagal could ride along and look tough in a tank for his reality show Lawman.

Remember: SWAT teams were originally instituted to deal with extreme threats to the public safety, such as the ex-Marine Charles Whitman, who barricaded himself in the University of Texas clock tower and rained bullets onto the crowd below. Now we have entire departments going out in full riot gear to arrest a single unarmed man and euthanize his chickens.

Whether that makes for gripping TV drama is a question I leave to Seagal’s dwindling audience to decide. I am sure, however, that it doesn’t make for good policing — and just as sure that Arpaio doesn’t give a damn.



Share This


School Choice News

 | 

Among a number of other bits of good news lately, there has been a favorable Supreme Court ruling regarding school choice.

A closely-divided Court decided (5–4, in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v.Winn) to uphold an Arizona law meant to facilitate school choice. The law allows people who donate to organizations that support religious schools to write off all their school payments on their state income taxes. Opponents of the law — including, naturally, teachers’ unions and public school administrations — argued that the tax credit amounted to establishment of religion, and was thus unconstitutional. They pointed to the fact that many of the schools supported by the tax credit required students to be of a particular faith. The opponents were trying to get around the landmark 2002 Supreme Court ruling Zelman v.Simmons-Harris, which held that voucher programs comply with the establishment clause, even when the vouchers are used to send kids to religious schools.

The opponents’ suit was based on a 1968 Supreme Court ruling that allows people who are not harmed by a religious subsidy to have standing to sue, because otherwise enforcement of the establishment clause would be difficult. But the majority of the current Court held that the exemption was meant only to apply to actual government payments to support religion, and a tax credit is not a government payment; it is just funds never collected to begin with.

This ruling will permit more states to allow tax breaks enabling parents whose children are being cheated out of a decent education by the state monopolistic school systems to send their kids to religious schools instead (or private secular schools, for that matter). Robert Enlow, head of the estimable Foundation for Educational Choice, hailed the verdict, saying, “Every state that is considering a tax-credit program can rest easy.” As a religious agnostic, I also hail the ruling. If you want to send your kids to a religious school, it seems obvious that you should have that right — it doesn’t harm me in the least.

Predictably, educrat Francisco Negron, head lawyer for thee National School Boards Association, the major organization representing state public school systems, condemned the ruling, rightly viewing it as another blow to the public school monopoly. Indeed, yes sir, it is a blow — to those disgusting swamps of governmental failure, which deserve all the efforts we can make to drain them, since they are destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, every year. Negron’s specific complaint, that allowing tax deductions for private schools lowers the resources available for public schools, is specious. Yes, allowing tax credits reduces funds available to the public schools, but it also reduces the number of their students, hence their costs.

Those who find little difference between the political parities should note that all of Bush’s Court appointees voted for the ruling, and all of Obama’s and Clinton’s voted against it. The Obama administration supported the law officially, but the people whom Obama put on the Court voted against it.  Justice Kagan — Obama’s most recent pick for the court — wrote the dissenting opinion. This is a classic progressive liberal trick: feign support for popular initiatives, but pack the courts with judges who will rule them unconstitutional.




Share This


The Way-Too-Friendly Skies

 | 




Share This


Behind the NPR Fiasco

 | 

“You who think that you’re so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves?”

— Frédéric Bastiat

When a fundraising scandal recently ensnared National Pubic Radio, some opinion-makers rushed to revel at the arrogant organization’s woes. I resisted not because I’m a spoilsport but because, living all of my adult life on the West Coast, I’ve absorbed enough Zen philosophy to give wide berth to schadenfreude. It can be a prologue to one’s own misfortunes.

Some weeks have passed, now, and it’s safe to consider what happened. And why it matters.

The facts of the scandal are fairly straightforward. James O’Keefe — the right-wing media provocateur — had a couple of colleagues pose as members of a U.S. Islamic group interested in donating money to NPR. These representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center” were put in touch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s head of fundraising, who arranged a lunch meeting. The fake Muslims came to the meeting equipped with hidden audio and video devices.

Over the course of the two-hour lunch, they said outrageous things about Israel, Republicans, and the Tea Party. Schiller, practiced in the obsequious manners of big-dollar fundraising toadyism, agreed and agreed. He agreed to some things that implied NPR has an anti-Israel bias and other things that indicated he and his colleagues are insecure strivers with naught but contempt for middle America.

For all his sucking up, Schiller didn’t get the $5 million check. The fake Muslims said they had a few things to think over first. And they hustled out with their material.

In a telephone call recorded after the lunch, the fake Muslims asked Schiller’s lieutenant (NPR’s “senior director of institutional giving”) whether she could have the $5 million donation treated as anonymous. The fake Muslims claimed that they were concerned about being audited by the government; she replied that this was possible and that she would do everything she could to obscure the gift’s provenance.

O’Keefe whittled the two hours of video into an 11-minute excerpt. And he released his excerpt to the internet and television news outlets, which repeated snippets of the NPR fundraiser sucking up to the Muslim Brotherhood and calling the Tea Party a collection of ignorant bigots.

Outrage — some genuine, some clearly manufactured — followed. And a couple of obsequious fundraisers weren’t going to satisfy the establishment Right’s partisan bloodlust. Besides, before his lunch with the fake Muslims, Schiller had already announced that he was leaving NPR to take a similar post with the left-leaning Aspen Institute. So, the Right turned its attention to a bigger target: NPR’s chief executive, a woman named Vivian Schiller (who is, as noted repeatedly, no relation to Ron Schiller).

Schiller’s boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.

Vivian Schiller had been an executive at the New York Times Company before moving to NPR and had been on the radar of establishment Republicans for some time. She rose to the top of their hit lists after firing NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams for . . . well, for splitting his time between NPR and Fox News.

On March 9, NPR released this statement from its Board of Directors’ Chairman Dave Edwards:

“It is with deep regret that I tell you that the NPR Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Vivian Schiller as President and CEO of NPR, effective immediately. The Board accepted her resignation with understanding, genuine regret, and great respect for her leadership of NPR these past two years.”

Edwards said the decision to part ways with Vivian Schiller proved the Board’s “commitment to NPR’s standards.”

While the organizational elite talked about standards, NPR’s trench diggers made like the Ministry of Truth — rewriting history to justify throwing Vivian Schiller under the bus. According to NPR’s own media correspondent, David Folkenflik: “some at NPR found Vivian Schiller’s leadership under fire wanting.” And he quoted one longtime network employee saying “we have not been well served by recent management. Many of our managers are talented and solid, but others have not been and have exposed us to some terrible, terrible hits.”

All of this was petty distraction. The big issue looming behind the quibbles over O’Keefe’s video antics—one Schiller’s embarrassing comments and the other Schiller’s shaky management—was, of course, money. When the New York Times reported on Schiller and Schiller’s fumbling pas de deux, it tried to set the frame:

“In the midst of a brutal battle with Republican critics in Congress over federal subsidies, NPR has lost its chief executive after yet another politically charged embarrassment.”

One of Ron Schiller’s most embarrassing comments on the O’Keefe video was a boast that NPR didn’t need the government money that it normally receives. This played into the hands of NPR’s political adversaries.

For years, establishment Republicans have been calling for cuts in the federal funds given to NPR and its parent entity, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These calls have grown louder since control of the House of Representatives changed hands in 2010. And they’ve changed from “cut the government funding” to “eliminate the government funding.” The day that Vivian Schiller resigned, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor released the following statement:

“Our concern is not about any one person at NPR, rather it’s about millions of taxpayers. NPR has admitted that they don’t need taxpayer subsidies to thrive, and at a time when the government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, we certainly agree with them.”

NPR has long played Enron-like accounting games when explaining how much government money it receives each year.

Like most flimflam artists, its executives prefer to talk in percentages than absolute dollars. They say that NPR only gets 2 or 3% . . . or maybe 5% . . . of its operating budget in the form of direct government assistance. Well, sort of direct; the money goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting first and then to NPR. Strictly speaking, this explanation is true. But it’s also incomplete.

NPR counts more heavily on programming fees collected from its “member stations,” in most cases low-on-the-dial FM operations affiliated in some manner with colleges or universities around the country. These fees — which account for somewhere between 15 and 25% of NPR’s operating budget — are usually paid with federal government grants made to the local stations.

It’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.

If establishment Republicans like Rep. Cantor have their way and eliminate the federal subsidies of NPR and its member stations, the network will lose as much as a third of its revenue base. Despite the tough talk, that would make a major dent in its business model. In absolute dollars, NPR’s annual budget has ranged between $150 and $170 million in recent years; so the cut would be something like $40 or $50 million from that.

Establishment Republicans have an intricately-wrought animosity to National Public Radio.

As several sharp media observers (most notably, Timothy Noah of the online magazine Slate.com) have pointed out, Republicans have been calling for cuts to NPR’s government subsidies for decades. The cuts rarely ever take effect. Instead, the politicians and network dance a kind of statist tango in which the two sides exchange insults, realize a mutual utility and then decide to coexist rather than taking action against one another.

To be sure, NPR has a left-wing bias. This bias is most evident in the network’s framing of topics in the news — the production-booth decisions about establishing the terms of debate on a particular topic, defining the parameters of coverage, formulating the questions asked of interview subjects. And, perhaps most important, determining which topics aren’t covered at all.

And NPR’s coverage of the present administration is a study in euphemism, rationalization, and justification. Every failure or setback is “unexpected,” any modest success is “profound” and “important.”

Despite this corporatism and institutional arrogance, NPR produces some good work. Its overall tone is generally earnest rather than partisan. And it puts on some damn good shows — including its weekend programming staples Car Talk and the documentary series This American Life. When you’ve listened to one of these — or a set of Ella Fitzgerald’s best work — it’s easy to rationalize an earnest, middlebrow radio network as, well, maybe not the worst waste of $40 or $50 million in taxpayer money.

Perhaps most important to establishment Republicans, the government subsidies give them influence with NPR. And its earnest, middlebrow listeners. As long as the network relies on government funds, it has to be “fair” to both establishment political parties. And, in this context, “fair” means perpetuating topics and coverage that serves the interests of the establishment parties.

So, why the difference this year? Why the executive resignations instead of another statist tango? Was the difference James O’Keefe? Or forces beyond his media trickery?

Probably the latter.

An NPR employee in a position to know told me that the organization elite worries that establishment Republicans aren’t interested in the tango this time around. Influenced by Tea Party activists, particularly in the House of Representatives, the GOP may actually cut NPR’s allowance significantly, if not completely. That’s why Ron Schiller’s boast about not needing government money and obsequious remarks about ignorant Tea Partiers were such a double-whammy. And why NPR’s Board wanted more than just the head of a middle-level executive who was already halfway out the door.

NPR’s institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters.

NPR fired Vivian Schiller to show true believers in the Congress that it’s still willing to dance the statist tango. Now, it waits to see if they’re impressed. We’ll find out this summer, when Speaker Boehner assembles his first budget.

One last point to consider, with regard to arrogance of institutions like NPR.

Here in the States, public radio is like your uncle, the charming communist who teaches sociology at the local community college. Earnest. Dedicated. Credentialed. Green. Reform-minded. Smart in a million minor ways. So, why do many of its employees make bone-headed decisions in the things they say and do?

Ron Schiller isn’t the only one who’s done something stupid. Last year, it came out that the publicity director for one of NPR’s larger member stations had posted to the left-wing Internet user group JournoList that she would “Laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” if right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh were dying in front of her.

The publicity director, a woman with the Dickensian name Sarah Spitz, later issued a watery apology:

“I made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh to what I believed was a private email discussion group from my personal email account. …I apologize to anyone I may have offended and I regret these comments greatly; they do not reflect the values by which I conduct my life.”

That common weasel phrase “may have offended,” so fatal to the spirit of apology.

NPR took great pains to distance itself from Ms. Spitz. It emphasized that she had never been an employee of the network — although it had run a few pieces she’d submitted from her occasional on-air work at the local station where she was an employee.

The term “cognitive dissonance” applies here. Some small minds don’t like the confusion caused by holding conflicting or inconsistent ideas, so they flee to orthodoxy. Structure and agreement. Arrogant institutions offer these things; but decadent institutions (which can also be arrogant) aren’t able to manage their orthodoxy and structure. Counter-intuitively, they become more orthodox because they are institutionally decadent. So it is with NPR. Its institutional elite may still be as earnest and dedicated as the network itself; but it breeds monsters. Small minds that seek agreement instead of wisdom, tormented by insecurities that they barely perceive.

They can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with the institution’s orthodoxy. Just as they can’t imagine anyone voting for McCain. Or Barr. Or anyone other than the overwhelmed mediocrity now occupying the White House. This lack of imagination becomes a kind of mental defect; and the people become fruit ripe for plucking by someone like James O’Keefe.

I’d turn back to O’Keefe and tell him that such ripe fruit is also low fruit. But who am I to get between a man and his livelihood?

As for NPR, if it loses its government subsidies, the good programs it produces will find value in the open market. And value eventually finds a home.




Share This


How to Unblock Your Writing

 | 

Wouldn't it be great to have limitless access to all the cells in your brain? To have a Google feature of sorts that would allow you to immediately call up just the right fact or memory that you need at any given moment, and the ability to synthesize and analyze all that information instantly?

That's what the drug NTZ does for characters in the film Limitless, a mystery-thriller in theaters now. Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a sci-fi writer with a contract for a book, but a debilitating writer's block has prevented him from writing a single word. His life is a mess, his apartment is a mess, he's a mess, and his girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) has just broken up with him because of it.

Then he meets an old friend, Vernon Gant (Johnny Whitworth) who gives him a tab of NTZ. Within minutes Eddie experiences a rush of insight and intelligence. He can remember books he thumbed through in college, television shows he saw in childhood, and math equations he learned in high school. Within hours he has cleaned his apartment, resolved his back rent, and written 50 scintillating pages of his novel. But the next day, he is back to being the same sloppy Eddie who can't write a single word. More NTZ is in order.

If this story line sounds familiar, it is. Daniel Keyes explored this idea of artificially stimulated intelligence in his "Flowers for Algernon," which was later made into the movie Charlie starring Cliff Robertson. Phenomenon, a John Travolta film, uses the same premise. Even the spy spoof television show "Chuck" uses a similar premise when the title character is able to access information stored in "the intersect," as though his brain were a remote computer. What makes this film stand out, however, is its jazzy musical score, witty script, engaging mystery, and skillful cast, not to mention its unexpected ending.

The film begins with the resounding thump of a sledgehammer against a metal door that jars the audience out of its seat. The throbbing musical score (by Paul Leonard-Morgan) drives the story forward, lifting the audience into a feel-good mood.

Eddie's brain on NTZ is simulated artfully for the audience through special camera effects that make Eddie's consciousness seem to speed not just down the road but also through cars, down sidewalks, into buildings, and out of them again at dizzying roller-coaster speeds. When he begins to write, letters appear from his ceiling and drop like rain into his room. Later, when he starts using his newfound skill to make money in the stock market, his ceiling tiles become a ticker tape, composing themselves into the stock symbols that he should buy. Intensified color is also used to portray his intensified awareness; even Cooper's intensely clear blue eyes add to his character's altered sense of reality. These techniques are very effective in creating a sense of what Eddie is experiencing.

The story's suspense is driven by Eddie's shady relationships with a drug dealer (Whitworth), a loan shark (Andrew Howard), a stalker (Tomas Arana), and an investment banker (Robert de Niro).  Eddie cleverly draws on all the memories stored in his brain to thwart the bad guys, but when he unwittingly comes across a dead body, he reacts in the way a normal person would — completely terrified, knocking over a chair as he collapses, then hiding in a corner with a golf club for protection as he calls the police. It's refreshing to see a character react as we probably would, instead of displaying unrealistic aplomb.

Limitless is a surprisingly entertaining film, with its fast pace, skilled cast, creative camera work, and interesting plot. Well worth the price of a ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Limitless," directed by Neil Burger. Many Rivers Productions, 2011, 105 minutes.



Share This


Much More Than Moore

 | 

The hardest part of making a film is not writing the script, hiring the cast, choosing the locations, planning the shots, or editing the footage down to a moving and entertaining feature that tells the story in under two hours. The hardest part of filmmaking is finding the funding. It takes money to make a movie. Lots of money.

Ideally, the consumers (moviegoers) should pay for the product (the movie on the screen). And ultimately, they do, $10 at a time. But filmmakers need money upfront to make the product. Piles and piles of money. This is just Capitalism 101 for libertarians, and it makes me stare in disbelief when Americans glibly criticize the capitalist system for being corrupt and selfish. What could be less selfish than deciding to forego current consumption in order to invest in someone else's dream?

From the earliest days of filmmaking, films have been financed in several ways: using personal funds, either from one's own pocket or that of a rich friend or relative; applying for business loans; studio investment; and selling product placement. In recent years, product placement has become increasingly important as a way to fund the burgeoning cost of producing a movie, where a million dollars can be considered little more than chump change.

Morgan Spurlock, the new darling of the political-agenda documentary, exposes the process of selling embedded advertising in his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens later this month. But, as I said, product placement is nothing new. From the start, radio programs and TV shows were "brought to you by" a particular sponsor; product placement was simply a way of getting the product into the show itself. Today product placement is a multibillion-dollar undertaking. Also called "co-promotion" and "brand partnering," this marriage of convenience provides money for the movie makers and brand recognition for the product. According to the documentary, businesses spent $412 billion last year on product placement ads, from the Coke glasses placed in front of the judges on American Idol, to the Chrysler 300s driven by Jack Bauer on 24 (after Ford withdrew its F-150s), to the kind of phones that Charlie's Angels carry.

The film is informative, intelligent, and laugh-out-loud funny, largely because of Spurlock's dry, self-deprecating humor as he goes about looking for sponsors for his film, which is simply a movie about Spurlock looking for sponsors for his film. Where Michael Moore made his mark in documentaries by humiliating his subjects through ambush journalism, Spurlock is gleefully upfront about what he is doing, treating his subjects with seriocomic respect and appreciation.

We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had.

Spurlock doesn't just walk into business meetings unprepared, and beg for money. He does his homework, as good filmmakers (or any salesperson) should. He begins with a psychological evaluation to determine his "Brand Personality," which helps him identify what kinds of products would be a good fit for his film. Not surprisingly, his brand personality is "mindful/playful," so he looks for products whose makers think of themselves as appealing to consumers who are mindful and playful. He arrives at meetings with high quality storyboards and mockups to make his pitch. He listens carefully to the producers and accommodates their concerns. After all, if their needs aren't met, they won't fund the film. They are his consumers as much as the ticket buyers at the multiplex will be.

The film is liberally peppered with products, all of them described, worn, eaten, or presented with Spurlock's respectful glee. We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had. Even his attorney is a product placed in the movie; after discussing a contract, Spurlock asks how much the consultation will cost him, and the attorney replies, "I charge $770 an hour. But the bigger question is, how much is it going to cost me to be in your movie?" (I wrote the attorney's name in my notes, but I'm not repeating it here. He hasn't paid Liberty anything to be mentioned in our magazine . . .)

Spurlock likens his movie to a NASCAR racer, and accordingly wears a suit covered in his sponsors' logos for interviews. The official poster shows his naked body tattooed with the logos, with a poster board of the film's title strategically placed across his crotch.  (Nudity sells, but I guess his manhood didn't pay for product placement.)

The film is funny but also informative. Despite Spurlock's gleeful presentation, he offers many serious ideas about product placement in movies and about advertising in general. For example, he discusses the potential loss of artistic control when the sponsoring company wants things done a certain way. This isn't new; Philip Morris reportedly told Lucy and Desi they had to be seen smoking more frequently on "I Love Lucy," the most popular show of the 1950s, and they complied. A filmmaker has to weigh the money against the control, and decide how much to compromise.

Truth in advertising is also discussed. Spurlock visits Sao Paolo, Brazil, where outdoor advertising has been completely banned by a new "Clean City Law." Now store owners rely more heavily on word-of-mouth referrals for new customers, which may indeed be a more honest form of testimonial, but highly inefficient — and inefficiency is generally passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. In the film, local Brazilians glowingly praise their ability to "see nature" now that the billboards are gone, as Spurlock's cameras pan to the high-rise buildings that overpower the few shrubs and trees in the downtown area and block the view of the sky. Subtle, and effective.

Spurlock also interviews several people to get their opinions of truth in advertising. Ironically, one of the interviewees has bright magenta hair taken from a bottle, another has the unmistakable ridge of breast augmentation, another is wearing a sandwich board advertising a nearby store, while a fourth is pumping gas at the chain that has made a brand-partnering deal with Spurlock. Once again Spurlock is making gentle fun of his subjects, and we laugh gleefully along with him. (But I'm still not willing to reveal the name of the gas station until they pony up with some advertising money for Liberty.)

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold may not be the greatest documentary ever made, but it is mindful and playful, like its maker. If it comes to your town, don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," directed by Morgan Spurlock. Snoot Entertainment/Warrior Poet, 2011, 90 minutes.



Share This


Losing the Battle, Spinning the War

 | 

March was a time of judgment on the American official language — the language spoken by the people considered most qualified to sling words around: politicians, media operatives, public educators of all kinds. The official language was weighed in the balance, and found wanting. It proved grossly unequal to the challenge of such mighty events as the Japanese earthquake, labor unrest in Wisconsin, and the political embarrassments of government radio. And then along came Libya.

As usual, the commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish. About Wisconsin he did what he ordinarily does; he tried to get into the fight, while also trying to stay out of it. A violent proponent of unions, and an eager recipient of union funds, he still hopes to win the electoral votes of all those states that are in financial turmoil because of the demands of public employee unions. So he acknowledged the states’ budget problems, and then he said, “It is wrong to use those budget cuts to vilify workers.” A little later, when asked to state Obama’s position on the continuing turmoil in Wisconsin, his press agent repeated that inane remark.

Of course, nobody was vilifying workers, even if you are crazy enough to equate workers with government employees. What some people were doing — and suddenly, such a lot of people — was trying to keep the unions that represent people employed by state and local governments from bankrupting their employers. Obama’s feckless verbal feint would have turned into a factual rout if some White House correspondent had asked the obvious question: “What vilification are you referring to?” But nobody seemed able to do that.

The commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish.

Meanwhile, union shock troops were occupying the capitol of Wisconsin, trying to prevent its legislature from voting. These vilified workers caused over seven million dollars of damage. Yet even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a rightwing personality on a rightwing channel, was willing to call the Wisconsin actions “peaceful.” You see what I mean about the official language not being adequate to the crisis? Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful? Of course not, but only one person in the media, a volunteer bloggist whom Yahoo! News, in a fit of common sense, allowed on its site, made a point like that. Congratulations, bloggist. You have linguistic qualifications that none of the media professionals can equal. But they’re the ones who are getting paid.

Among this country’s most influential purveyors of the American official language is National Public Radio. I’m calling it that because it is currently attempting to deny its identity as government radio by calling itself by a set of non-referential initials: it just wants to be known as good ‘ol “NPR.” Well, sorry, alphabetical agency: we all know the smell of a government medium. It comes from the money it tries to cadge from the taxpayers.

In early March a highly paid government-radio official was caught on video telling some “Muslim” potential donors that “NPR” would actually be better off without government help, presumably because it would no longer have to pay any attention to the majority of the American people, whom he suggested were ignorant and stupid and susceptible to the racist propaganda of people who actually, believe it or not, would like a smaller government. He identified the tragedy of America as the fact that its educated elite (clearly typified by himself) was so small and uninfluential. Those were the views that Mr. Ron Schiller, senior vice president of National Public Radio, expressed concerning the citizens of the United States, who (perhaps tragically) put the “N” in “NPR.”

Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful?

Schiller was forced to resign immediately. His brief public statement assesses his behavior in this way: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”

Again we see the limitations of the official language, which proved utterly incapable of specifying what went wrong with Mr. Schiller, who might be offended by his remarks, or why anybody might be offended. In short, the official language was incapable of answering any question that anyone who read his statement would probably ask. And it created new and damaging questions: Why did you make statements that were not reflective of your own beliefs — that is, lie? By the way, what are your beliefs? Do you actually believe that other Americans are smart but you are dumb, yet for some reason you keep maintaining the opposite? If so, how does that happen?What were you thinking, anyway? But no one in the high-class media found the words to ask such simple questions.

Now we come to the terrible events in Japan. Again, Obama was in the vanguard of our linguistic forces. And again . . . Here’s what he said about the earthquake and tsunami, on March 11 — in prepared remarks, presumably edited by numerous White House word wizards, who were struggling to get exactly the right tone. “This,” Obama said, “is a potentially catastrophic disaster.”

Gosh, this thing is so bad, something really bad may happen.

When the president is attacked and captured by his own language, what can we expect of his assistant priests, the writers and readers of the “news” media? The answer is, Even worse. And we got it.

Particularly impressive was the horror-movie approach, with the Japanese cast as Godzilla: “Operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 scrambled ferociously to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor” (AP report, March 11). I have trouble picturing anyone tamping down heat orpressure, but it’s even harder for me to picture someone doing it ferociously, unless that someone is a monster trying to rescue its offspring from the accursed humans’ nuclear experiments.

But maybe the ferocious beings were actually the talking heads of American TV. On the selfsame day, March 11, Fox News’ late-night guy was calling the earthquake and tsunami “one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind.” Fox News’ Rick Folbaum called it “the fifth worst earthquake in the history of earthquakes, folks.” Yet again, the official language just isn’t up to the task. It ought to be able to distinguish between “the hundred years since earthquake records have been scientifically kept” and “the history of earthquakes” or “the history of mankind,” but evidently it can’t. Under communism, hundreds of thousands of people in China lost their lives in natural disasters — but we have no words to speak of them, do we? Or maybe, just maybe, we never read a book, so we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout things like that. In either case, the problem lies with words. We can’t use them, and we can’t read them either.

After Folbaum made his immortal declaration, his colleague, Marianne Rafferty, consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that? What would you have to be paid to make such a statement before an audience of educated people, or even just people?

The worst thing is that words are related, in certain ways, to thoughts; so if you don’t have thoughts . . . Some examples:

“Is Japan getting the assistance it needs?” That’s the question that Wolf Blitzer asked the Japanese ambassador to the United States (March 12, CNN). I thought it was a little strange that Japan, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet, should be the object of that question. But never mind. In reply, the ambassador noted, somewhat vaguely, that his prime minister had ordered one-fourth of the nation’s armed forces to help the people currently starving a moderate distance north of Tokyo. That apparently satisfied Blitzer. He didn’t say what you would have said: “What! Why isn’t he mobilizing the entire army?” He didn’t say what you would have expected him to say: “Wait a minute! What’s your God damned army for, anyhow? We can get our correspondents into the disaster zone — why can’t you get your army in? And if you can’t, why don’t you air-drop supplies? In short, Mr. Ambassador, what the hell are you talking about?” But I guess Blitzer couldn’t think of those questions. After all, he’s merely one of America’s most famous interviewers.

Marianne Rafferty consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that?

“There’s the sense that they’re in this together, and they’re just trying to get along as best they can.” That’s what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 14, describing Japanese people waiting hours for government water, only to have an official tell them that the government had run out of water and they would have to wait an undetermined number of additional hours in line. He liked the way the victims remained stolidly in that line. He thought it was good that they didn’t complain. Yes, in subsequent days of reporting, he did begin doing what any normal information-processor would have done right away: he criticized the Japanese government for its lies and incompetence, at least about the lurking threat that we all fear, nuclear reactors. But he never questioned his favorable view of the people’s passivity (the media word was “calm”). It just wasn’t in him to make the connection between the people’s passivity and the government’s incompetence. Again, he didn’t have the words. I assume that he didn’t have the thoughts, either.

Here’s another instance. “You wonder how any government could deal with such a thing,” intoned Shepard Smith, a Fox News figure momentarily stationed in Japan, on the evening of March 15. He was referring to the combination of the nuclear issue and the disaster relief issue, both of which the Japanese government was supposed to “deal with.” Personally, I didn’t “wonder” about that. I suspect that you didn’t either. Any responsible government could find out how to deal with such problems. There are known procedures for addressing dangers in nuclear power plants, and disaster relief is not an unknown science. This wasn’t World War II. But maybe the Japanese official class is like our own — so tied up in its own linguistic incapacities that it can’t formulate an efficient thought.

Now to Libya. I’ve recently written two reflections about Libya for this journal, so I can hit the ground running. What everyone with a brain is still laughing about is President Obama’s address to the nation on March 28. Generally, watchers identified the most risible part of the speech as Obama’s denial that he intended to get rid of Qaddafi. Admittedly, he wanted Qaddafi gone; yet, he said, “broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” He couldn’t find the words to say “ousting Qaddafi,” so he said “regime change.” If you’ve got the magic decoder, you’ll understand this. But you still may not understand his policy.

By denying his lust for regime change, he costumed himself as a dove. Unfortunately, that made the hawks wonder whether he really, truly, wanted Qaddafi out. (They’d heard double-talk before.) So on the next day, he back went on TV, to express his satisfaction that the members of Qaddafi’s inner circle supposedly “understand that the noose is tightening.” Ah! Now we are the executioner with the noose. So both the hawks and the doves are happy, right? Well, maybe not.

The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing.

You can tell when somebody is really dumb, or is really desperate for the attention of people in Washington: that person is eager to go on TV and defend nonsense like this, which nobody else could possibly defend. Thus Bill Richardson, once Clinton’s ambassador to Monica Lewinsky, then governor of New Mexico, now television expert on constitutional law, informing CNN that Obama was acting purely in order “to avert a humanitarian disaster” when he started bombing Libya. Asked whether the president shouldn’t have consulted with someone in Congress before going to war, Richardson said there was no need: “This is not a war powers situation.”

You see! You see! There it is again. The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing. So we are forced to watch this strange, slow shifting of vehicles around the used car lot, as political salesmen try to find some piece of junk that the suckers will buy: “this is not a war powers situation.

Imagine Libyan planes and rockets bombarding the New Jersey coast. Would that be a war powers situation? Would it turn into one if its goal were regime change? Or would it still be a mission to avert a humanitarian disaster, and therefore immune from legislative review?

But here’s the real stuff. In his address to the nation on March 28, President Obama tried to calculate the scale of the humanitarian disaster he was trying to avert, without the help of long (or even short) consultations with Congress: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

I know, I know — you can’t resist the unintentional humor of “a city nearly the size of Charlotte,” as if anybody knew, or cared, how large Charlotte (North Carolina?) might be. The desired impression was: Whoa! That big, dude? Then I guess we gotta go to war! The real impression was: Not!

But there are so many other things to notice:

The image that simply makes no sense: try to picture a massacre that reverberates.

The modesty that presidents get whenever they know they’re in trouble, and “I” just naturally transforms itself to “we.” (Were YOU waiting? Did YOU know?)

The Victorian prissiness of “suffer a massacre.”

The pathological specificity of “one more day” and “nearly the size.”

The moral stupidity of “stained the conscience of the world,” which literally means that if some bad thing happens, everyone in the world becomes guilty of it. (All right; you think I’m just being sarcastic. Then tell me what the phrase actually means.)

And finally, the breakdown in thought and grammar evident in the goofy progression of verbs: “If we waited . . . Benghazi could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated.” To see what’s happened here, insert some normal words into the various grammatical slots. Like this: “I knew that if I waited, you could write me a check that would have made me rich.” Huh?

Anyone who knew grammar would have fixed that one up, but as we know, Obama, the world-famous author, has no knowledge of grammar, never having mastered even the like-as distinction, let alone verb progression. But examine his inability to distinguish the meanings of “could” and “would.” The president was forced to admit that he had made a decision, that what he did wasn’t inevitable, and that he wasn’t, like Yahweh, absolutely certain about the future. That’s how “could” got into that abominable sentence. Yet at the same time, he wanted to imply that he was certain about the future: why else could, or might, “we” have made the decision we made? So he put in “would.”

And that solved his problem. So far as he could tell.

Don’t blame him. He speaks only the official language.




Share This


Equal Opportunity Dining

 | 




Share This

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.