Two-Choice Tyranny

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In these United States, we are proud of our nontotalitarian system. We call ourselves a “democracy,” and — good for us! — we have actual choices. But how many of us really know that?

A totalitarian political system is, essentially, an exclusive operation: a done deal. What makes it totalitarian is that it serves a closed system of big-government power. But is our own, in its present condition, so very different? It certainly offers us a proposition more seductive than the mailed-fist slam dunk of power characteristic of North Korea, Nazi Germany, or the former Soviet Union. Since we get two choices instead of one, we are assured that we are truly “free to choose.”

Those choices are, however, very narrowly defined. We are pressed to choose only between the two offered by the powers-that-be. The state monopoly on legalized force still needs to keep us contained within borders enabling it to hold its power without any real opposition.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose? Obama and Romney can honestly be said to represent the best, the smartest, the highest to which our chief executive may aspire?

Excuse my sacrilege against popular piety, but I must revise a line from that Lee Greenwood song that’s played every national holiday to get us all glowy: “God help the U.S.A.”

My friends know I’m a libertarian, so they generally indulge my eccentricities. But lately they’ve been getting very tired of me. I simply won’t fall into line and declare my allegiance to either major party. I don’t like either one of them, and I refuse to accept that my choice must be limited to such a gruesome twosome.

I participate in a local group of gay conservatives, and this group generously embraces libertarians. Most of the time. They’re not so sure about us now. I’ve been stirring up trouble on our blog, and have been sternly chastised for being “rude.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney . . . how many millions of people do we have in this country? Yet these are the two candidates between whom we have to choose?

I probably could have been nicer to the commenters with whom I tangled — one of whom I’ve since met, and is quite nice — but my blood is up. I’m the oldest member of the group, and I’ve been hearing the same mindnumbing and intelligence-insulting “either/or” ultimatum in every presidential election for 24 years. Ronald Reagan (for whom I voted both times, in the first two elections in which I was old enough to vote) entered office with the very best of intentions. He was thwarted at nearly every turn, not only by those dastardly liberals but by big-government “conservatives” in his own party. George W. Bush was certainly no small-government devotee, but he might have been nudged farther in that direction had he not spent all his time being dictated to by war hawks and religious zealots.

Republicans’ choices are being dictated to them by Republicans, and Democrats’ by Democrats. There is no evil “other side” bewitching them into behaving like soldiers in an army of zombies. We are tyrannizing ourselves.

We get a feel for the narrowing of the funnel — the constriction of the process — in the constant reminders that “we could have been stuck with Rick Santorum,” the GOP’s runner-up for presidential nominee. “No,” I tell my Republican friends, “you could have been stuck with Rick Santorum.” I am only slightly more likely to vote for Mitt, come November, than I would have been for Little Ricky, so I may not choose to stick myself with either of them. But come November, we are all going to be stuck with somebody few of us can stand. Again.

I sense fatalism in my friends’ repeated rationalizations for their conformity. “This is simply the way it is,” they tell me. When I ask them why they think so, they look at me the way they might look at a 3-year-old who’s asked them why ponies can’t fly.

They seem to think that of the millions of Republicans in the United States, the only two of presidential timber were Romney and Santorum. The multitude was scared away from even considering Ron Paul, the evil Doctor No. And Gary Johnson couldn’t get the media to ask him about any subject other than marijuana, so the country has never found out why he would be a possible choice (and, I still believe, the best one). For three and a half years, Republicans have been gathering forces to battle the Obama Antichrist, yet this is the best they can do?

The choice, as always under a two-choice tyranny, comes down not to a fight for principles but to the preservation of power. The only principle that big government mandarins care about is power. Citizens of the former Soviet Union were unhappy because they knew they had no choices. We are pacified in our servitude by the myth that two choices mean freedom, simply because two choices are — theoretically — better than one. But if both choices serve a closed big-government system, we may rightly ask whether our victory in the Cold War was truly all it’s been cracked up to be.

Eventually, Soviet citizens grew so unhappy that they forced a revolution. We may well question what’s become of it, but at least they’ve replaced their old tyrants with some new ones. Perhaps, when people live for too long under tyranny of any sort, they lose the will to be truly free and are content with the illusion of freedom. Like frogs in water brought to a boil too slowly to perceive the rising heat, will we make the leap out of the kettle before we’re cooked?




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Good Film, Bad Economic Theory

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As Arbitrage begins, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the respected head of a billion-dollar capital investment firm, is being interviewed on a cable news show. “Competition for our limited amount of money causes asset bubbles, and then they burst,” he explains in terms simple enough for even the most casual moviegoer to understand. I rolled my eyes. This common fallacy of limited wealth was debunked in 1776 by Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. But the notion simply will not die. It has been the source of envy, greed, and empire building for centuries.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. Thus the only way to increase one’s wealth was to steal someone else’s piece of the pie. Nations did just that, invading other nations to plunder their wealth. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare, claiming that the wealthy have somehow stolen goods and services from the poor. It is the foundation of his redistributionist policies.

However, Smith rightly pointed out that wealth is not finite. We are not competing for a “limited amount of money.” Wealth can be created; the pie can be expanded. By adding time, labor, and innovation, value can be added to raw materials, and new products can be created. A pound of copper can be transformed into pennies, electric wire, or computer processors, for example. Wealth expands. It’s simple economics.

But filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a movie, not to teach an economics lesson, so let’s cut him some slack and get back to the film. It’s a good one. Arbitrage is an absorbing, fast-paced financial and crime thriller whose intertwining stories and well-conceived characters create growing tension throughout the film.

In the world of high finance, arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” In Arbitrage, the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is in a race against time to execute deals that he hopes will restore balance in both his financial and his personal life.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare.

In his financial world the imbalance could lead to prison time. Like the majority of white-collar embezzlers, Robert has not intended to defraud his investors. He made a bad investment decision, and instead of cutting his losses, he threw more company money at the investment, hoping to buy enough time to turn the bad deal around. Down by over $400 million, he is now trying to sell the company, but that means cooking the books. In order to cover up the gaping hole in his asset ledger, he has borrowed over $400 million and plunked it into the company account for the auditors to see. His intentions are honorable; he plans to repay the short-term debt (with interest) as soon as the deal is signed, and then refill the gaping hole with cash from the sale of the company. He will be left with just a few million for his own retirement, but his shareholders will be protected, and that’s what matters to him.

All of this is illegal, of course, despite his good intentions. When wealthy investors borrow money from one source and lend it to another to earn money on the float it’s called “arbitrage”; when ordinary people do it it’s called “check kiting”; and when CEOs do it to cover up a bad investment it’s called “fraud.”

Looming at the end of the week are two major functions: the sale of his company and a hospital charity event over which his lovely and supportive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is presiding. Ellen needs a check to honor their commitment to the hospital; Robert can’t spare a dime until the company audit clears. “It’s only two million,” she reminds him, and the audience chuckles. They are the perfect family — elegant, rich, charitable, and close-knit. Robert’s son and daughter, Peter (Austin Lysy) and Brooke (Brit Marling), are on the company payroll, Peter as an attorney at large, and Brooke as Chief Investment Officer. Brooke can’t understand why her father wants to sell the company when they seem to be so successful. “We make a great living. We give to the causes we believe in. We have a great life. Why sell?” she asks, perplexed. Brooke is a pretty smart cookie, but Peter is only there because of the family connection. One can’t help but think of pipsqueak Don and sharp-nosed Ivanka “playing office” in the Donald’s empire.

And then there is Robert’s girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Of course. When high-powered investment types are in the picture, there is always a mistress. Julie’s art gallery opening is another event converging on Robert’s perfect storm. Julie’s petulant texts insisting that Robert attend her event distract Miller during negotiations for the sale of the company.

Robert is on the verge of success when he is involved in a car accident that could sidetrack his buyers and derail the sale if the news of his involvement gets out. Rather than report the accident, he engages a young acquaintance, Jimmy (Nate Parker), to help him cover it up. Robert still hasn’t figured out that coverups never stay covered up (unless, of course, you are Teddy Kennedy). What follows is a tightly written, superbly acted game of cat and mouse as Robert rushes to stay one step ahead of the police, the negotiators, his injuries, his wife, and his own daughter, who has begun to suspect that someone in the company is defrauding her father.

Arbitrage has opened to limited release, and that’s a shame, because it is a well-made film with a great story and well-developed characters. If it isn’t showing at a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green Room Films, 2012, 107 minutes.



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Observations on a Leaking “Social”

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In a recent piece I had a bit of fun with the notice that the Social Security Administration (SSA) had purchased 174,000 rounds of hollow-point .357 caliber ammo, which the SSA later said was for “target practice.” I speculated that the SSA was gunning up to gut-shoot granny when she comes to complain about her benefits being cut, owing to America’s spending and (lack of saving) problem.

Two recent reports provide an interesting new take on the story.

The first conveys the news — totally ignored in the mainstream media — that this year marks a record high for Social Security retirement and Social Security disability benefits paid out. And the fiscal year has a month left to go!

In Fiscal Year 2011 (which ended September 30 of that year), the feds shelled out a record sum: nearly $592 billion in benefits (from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund). But as of the end of last month, they had already spent about $3 billion more than that — $595 billion in total so far in FY 2012.

Again, in FY 2011, the SSA paid out $128 billion in disability benefits. As of last month, it had paid already paid $129 billion for FY 2012.

As of now, there are a record 45,505,287 retirees or survivors receiving regular Social Security payments, and an additional 10,786,510 workers or their dependents on Social Security Disability. And the wave of retiring baby boomers is just getting underway.

Then there is the fascinating story out of Louisiana of a dude who was denied emergency food stamps. This citizen — one Mark Knight — allegedly returned to his truck and pulled out his handy AR-15 “assault” rifle, apparently to petition for redress of grievances. He was nabbed by national guardsmen before he could use it.

All this conjures up the vision of granny herself gunning up with an assault rifle . . . against SSA agents with .357 magnums . . . not really a fair fight.

My suggestion: the SSA needs to bring in tanks, with hollow-point ammo for the .50-caliber machine guns. This will help the citizenry achieve true moral clarity.




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Americana, Boom and Bust

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Making a documentary is a lot like planting a seed you find in the yard; you don't know what you're going to get until after you start filming. When director Lauren Greenfield began filming The Queen of Versailles, real estate was at its height as an investment, and timeshare mogul David Siegel was a billionaire. He and his engineer turned model turned beauty queen turned trophy wife Jackie were building the largest private home in America: 90,000 square feet, 30 bathrooms, two sweeping formal staircases leading to the pillared ballroom, and more bedrooms than Jackie could count.

What could anyone possibly need with 90,000 square feet of house, you might well ask. Well, you have to put the kids' ice skating rink somewhere, right? And maybe someday they'll even take up skating . . . That was the story Greenfield expected to tell. It isn’t quite the story that she ended up with.

At the start, the Siegels were on top of the world as they posed for photographs and preened for their interviews. Siegel’s Westgate Resorts was the largest timeshare company in the world, and its showcase resort in Las Vegas was eclipsing all the hotels on the Strip. Donald Trump complained that he couldn't sleep at night because the Westgate logo shone into his penthouse at the Trump Hotel. David and Jackie both came from humble beginnings, and both were proud of the lifestyle they had come to enjoy: a world full of chauffeured limousines, private jets, celebrity parties, and an overabundance of stuff.

But having "stuff" is not the same as having class. The Siegels’ dream home was patterned (sort of) after Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, but there is nothing regal or even noble about the Siegels themselves. Let's face it: anyone who lives with dog poop on the carpets or takes the limousine to McDonald's is trashy, not classy. Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

The Siegels seem like nice enough people, but I have friends who live in a trailer park who have more class than they do. The film provides a revealing look at this family of ordinary people living in an extraordinary home with unseemly amounts of money to blow on themselves. It's funny, it's shocking, it's sad — and it's fascinating.

A timeshare provides a way of selling the same property 52 times. The purchasers buy one week at a resort and can use that week every year for the rest of their lives, and their children's lives for that matter, as long as the timeshare resort is still operating (which can become a bit iffy). If you get tired of vacationing in that spot, you can trade your week for a timeshare at a resort in another location. On the surface it seems attractive: timeshare resorts are generally nicer and more personal than motels, and it seems like it will save money to own a vacation place rather than rent a room at a hotel. But the purchasers still have to pay "maintenance fees" when they use the timeshares, as well as monthly mortgage payments, since most people just put 10% down when they buy. These "free" vacations get pretty expensive.

Jackie's painfully gigantic breast implants are symbolic of their lifestyle as a whole: overdone and in your face.

So how did the Siegels sell all those timeshares? You can't cheat an honest man, but you can sucker a greedy one. Timeshare operators bait their hooks with the promise of free stuff: free Disney tickets, free Vegas shows, free dinners, free hotel rooms. Like the little fish who thinks he can nibble around the bait and avoid the hook, these potential clients arrive at the timeshare table thinking — knowing! — that they will just spend three hours listening to a spiel in exchange for hundreds of dollars worth of goods. No way are they going to buy anything. But the timeshare sharks know exactly what kind of bait to use for the fish they have in the tank: the ones who feed on “good deals.” So that's how they position their sales marketing — as a very good deal. Taking advantage of the sellers, almost. Very few couples emerge from a timeshare office without a contract — and a mortgage — for a lifetime of vacations.

Of course, the sales reps don't want to think of themselves as predatory sharks. So Siegel gives them a different spiel. He baits them with statistics showing how going on family vacations regularly saves lives and marriages. He conveniently ignores statistics showing that consumer debt strangles families and destroys the same lives and marriages. The thing is, Siegel seems to believe his own statistics, citing the thousands of people who earn a living because of his empire. One would expect him to have contempt for the people he suckers, but he seems genuinely to believe himself when he insists, "I save lives." If he's a shark, he has convinced himself that he is a nurse shark, dosing his patients with the healing balm of a week in Las Vegas or Orlando every year.

Then — with unforeseen effects on the documentary — came the fall of 2008, and with it the fall of the economy in general and of real estate in particular. Suddenly the easy money that Siegel's company had relied on dried up. Without mortgages, new clients could not purchase the timeshares. His existing clients could not keep up with their own mortgage payments. His employees went from the sales table to the collections department. It was not a happy time for anyone at the company, and it shows on their faces as they call clients to ask for payments.

The Siegels got caught in the same overextended net, and found themselves unable to keep up with their own mortgage payments. At the height of his success, David employed 6,000 people (19 of whom were maintaining his house and nannying his children). He needed a constant stream of sales to service all those salaries. But when mortgage money dried up, so did sales. In the post-2008 interviews, he is pensive and withdrawn, no longer the gregarious host. "I never took anything off the table," he recalls. "I put it all into the business."

Even more damning is his admission about the lake property that he and his wife once owned free and clear in pricey Isleworth, an exclusive community in Orlando with the likes of Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neal as neighbors. "I paid cash to build our house," he laments, referring to the 26,000-square-foot house where they lived while Versailles was being built. "Then I borrowed against it to expand the business." Siegel did not erect a legal wall between his company and his personal holdings, as wise business owners do. He foolishly did not realize that the house you live in is not an investment. It is a consumer item. A home.

Soon Siegel needs $400 million to save his Las Vegas resort and $100 million to save the unfinished dream home, Versailles. Jackie starts cutting corners by doing her Christmas shopping at Walmart and letting all but two of the domestic staff go. "If I'd known I was going to have to raise them myself, I wouldn't have had seven children," she says, only half in jest, while cooking a dinner of chicken and corn on the cob. She continues to be a compulsive collector of stuff, but it's mostly cheap stuff. She buys three separate "Operation" games for her kids and gives David "Monopoly" and "Risk" for Christmas. (Odd gifts, when you think about it.)

Meanwhile David blows a gasket and refuses to come to dinner when the front door is left open and the lights are left on; "Don't you people care how much electricity costs?" he complains. But the truth is, Jackie's overspending hasn't caused their financial mess; David's overborrowing has. She might have wasted a million, but he has lost half a billion. Jackie repeatedly says that stress is bringing them closer as a couple, but when David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

Eventually the bank offers the Siegels a way out: let the Las Vegas resort go, so the company will have enough money to keep operating the rest of its holdings, including the house. But David isn’t willing to give up his $400 million in sunk costs, and he is determined not to let the creditors have the crown jewel of his empire. He's stubborn. Or maybe he just believes in fairy dust. At any rate, he seems a broken man. "Aren't we finished with this yet?" he asks the filmmaker. "We're done. I'm done," he declares softly. It's hard to tell whether he means the film, his business, his family, or himself.

When David is asked point blank if his marriage is a source of strength to him, he responds bluntly and firmly, "No."

The Siegels do not appear in what is probably the most revealing and poignant scene of the film. The Filipina nanny invites the camera into "her" house. It is the children's elegant abandoned playhouse, and she has been given permission to use it as her own hideaway. Furnished with a bed, a dresser, and her personal trinkets, it is the place she goes to be alone and enjoy the quiet. In this film about building the largest single-family home in America, she talks about her simple goal: to provide a house for her father. "Owning a concrete house is so important to people in the Philippines," she explains. She has left her own children behind in the Philippines to raise someone else's children and earn money to send back home to her family. "I tried to give that to my father, but he never got his house. Now he's dead. He is in a tomb. I guess that is his concrete house now," she says with a sigh and a tear of resignation.

The juxtaposition of this nanny's simple dream and the dream house of the self-proclaimed queen of Versailles is simple and powerful. The rise and fall of the Westgate timeshare empire is fascinating. The entire film is funny, sad, and revealing. It's an outstanding documentary, one that Greenfield could scarcely have dreamed of when she started making it. Her creation turned out to be the real “Versailles.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Queen of Versailles," directed by Lauren Greenfield. Evergreen Pictures, 2012, 100 minutes.



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Three Ways of Reacting to the Obvious

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At this writing, no one can say what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when Ambassador Chris Stevens was brutally murdered by a mob of Muslim fanatics, driven to frenzy by an obscure YouTube feature. Or was he murdered by a Muslim army, conducting a well-planned attack? Or was it an inside job, perpetrated by Libyan employees of the embassy? Or perhaps all three?

The administration’s account of the enemy has frequently changed. But what about America’s arrangements to defend its people and property? What about our own operations? What happened with them? Mrs. Clinton’s State Department clearly wants everyone to assume that adequate security was in place. But . . . but . . . what about the obvious? The ambassador is dead.

The badly named Buck McKeon (R-CA), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, made that point. It’s an obvious point, but he made it, and he did a little something with it: “It’s pretty obvious he did not have adequate security. Otherwise he would probably be here today. . . . I’m really disappointed about that. I think when we put our people around the world at risk and don’t provide adequate security, shame on us.”

This is one kind of response to fact. It’s banal, it’s obvious, but at least it recognizes the obvious. It recognizes things as they are, and allows for some further investigation, and perhaps some redress of grievances.

A second kind of response is represented by President Obama’s bizarre remarks of Sept. 20, about what he had learned as president: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."

In making this comment, Obama assumed a general recognition of the obvious: he had not managed to fulfill his promises of hope and change. An obvious response would be, “Well, maybe somebody else can fix things.” But that’s not the tack Obama took. That’s not what he said he had learned. He said he’d learned that you can’t change Washington from the inside, that you have to be an outsider to do that.

There’s no way you can make sense out of that. Obama couldn’t be farther inside, and he’s campaigning to stay that way, despite the fact that insiders can’t change anything. But obviously, when he was on the outside, he didn’t manage to change anything, either — because otherwise why would he have campaigned to get on the inside?

This dilemma has no exit. It’s a radical form of conservatism: since no one, either inside or outside, can do anything about anything, we need to stay exactly where we are right now. Obama happens to be in the White House, so that’s a good deal for him. As for the rest of us . . . we’ll always have Social Security to fall back on.

Or will we? On September 20, Paul Ryan addressed the convention of the American Association of Retired Persons, otherwise known as the world’s greatest purveyor of direct mail, and said what is obviously true and admitted by all: Social Security is broke, and getting broker, and if something isn’t done about it, the system will fold. This non-news should, theoretically, be of the first importance to the AARP. The AARP should want to do something about it. But what it did was to boo and hiss Paul Ryan.

This is the third kind of reaction to the obvious — an impassioned resistance to knowing or doing anything. It’s a conservatism so militant that even Jerry Falwell, were he still on earth, might pause and admire it. It’s the kind of conservatism that one sees everywhere in the campaigns of incumbents (and this year, the Democratic Party is the chief incumbent). Every Obama sign and sticker is like a giant billboard reading SO WHAT? The failure is obvious; the intention to fix it, nonexistent. The program is, keep everything exactly the way it is. The fact that this program will probably win is an even ghastlier reflection on American politics than the Republicans’ tedious gyrations between truth, untruth, and sort of truth.

“Fact checks” almost always hurt the Republicans, because the Republican campaign is predicated on the idea that facts exist and must be faced. But they do nothing to hurt the Democrats — and that’s the really awful thing.




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Dead Cat Bounce

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The Democratic National Convention produced not much of a bounce in the polls for Obama, and the bounce was soon gone. A big part of the reason was the continuing economic bad news that rained on the propaganda parade. This news is worth analyzing, because most people don’t see its significance. Certainly the mainstream media don’t.

First, early in the week of the convention, the feds announced that we officially hit the $16 trillion mark in national debt. This happened during the administration of a man who questioned his predecessor’s patriotism for having spent much less in eight years than his own administration has spent in less than four. The media ignored this, of course.

But much worse were the job figures. The jobs report showed a measly 96,000 net jobs created in August. And the numbers for the previous two months were revised downwards — 41,000 fewer jobs were created in the previous two months than had been reported earlier.

The unemployment rate “dropped” from 8.3% to 8.1%, but only because an incredible 368,000 people simply left the labor force. Yes, four people quit searching for work for every one who found it.

In fact, if the labor participation rate were what it was on the day Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be a whopping 11.2%. Hell, if the labor participation rate had just stayed the same as it was last month, the unemployment rate would have gone up to 8.4%. Count in the underemployed along with those who have given up looking for work, and the rate is really 19%.

Meanwhile, in the last month for which data are available, the number of Americans on food stamps rose by 173,000. Yes, about two Americans applied for food stamps for every one who got a job. More than 45 million Americans — i.e., roughly 15% of the population — are now on food stamps, almost double the 7.9% rate that was the average from 1970 to 2000.

The number of people on SSI (Social Security disability) has now hit 11 million, half signing up under Obama’s enlightened reign.

The fruits of neosocialism are bitter, except for the neosocialists themselves.




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The 47% Solution

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Earlier this week Mother Jones released a video in which Mitt Romney, standing in front of a gathering of prospective donors (that is, rich people whose lives are so impoverished they have nothing better to do than listen to another rich person beg for money), all but conceded the election, announcing that no matter what he did, 47% of the nation would be voting for his opponent. Setting aside how imprecise and impolitic his remarks were — did he really need to make himself appear even more out of touch with the public? did he really mean to lump minimum-wage earners in with the professionally unemployed as “moochers”? — his response to the footage that shows how poor a candidate he is, and how incompetent his campaign has been.

Straight off, Romney took to his domesticated media outlet, Fox News, to answer softball questions that would allow him to get back on message. But he botched even this: saying his remarks were “not elegantly stated” because they were “off the cuff” was an admission that he could neither handle anything approaching a crisis, nor tailor a message to this specific audience while keeping up the phony populist image all politicians are expected to maintain.

Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation at the start of a campaign?

Next, Romney pointed to Obama’s notorious remarks in the 2008 campaign about rural voters “get[ting] bitter and cling[ing] to their guns or religion.” While he’s right about this revealing the president’s (undoubtedly ongoing) contempt for a large percentage of the electorate, he’s wrong that the effect is in any way comparable, or that Obama’s later victory proves that this election is still salvageable. Obama’s remarks came in April, much earlier in the cycle, when he was still battling Hillary Clinton for his party’s nomination; at that time he was running left, trying to gain support from likely primary voters in the Democrat base. Obama still had plenty of time to spin the remarks for a wider audience (and is still doing so today), especially when faced with yet another weak GOP candidate.

Romney is not facing a lame duck candidate, and he does not have months to spare. He may have had that chance if the video had surfaced in May, when the donor event was surreptitiously recorded, but with the tape emerging only now, it’s as if he gave them just last week. And even so the situation was still different: by then Romney was the nominee in all but name; his message should’ve been about how he was going to carve out hunks of that 47% for the GOP. Can you imagine Reagan casting aside half the nation from the very first? Romney's comparison of his callous remarks with Obama’s shows he does not understand the gravity of his misspeak.

Meanwhile, Romney, as well as Paul Ryan, has also tried to call attention to taped footage of Obama speaking in 1998 — 1998! — about how he believes in “redistribution” of wealth. Back then Obama was just finishing up his first term as an Illinois state senator in a very safe seat; he had no reason not to say he believed in the same thing 99% of Democrats have believed in since FDR’s day. The move smacks of sheer desperation; worse, it suggests that this video clip from 1998 — 1998! — was something the campaign had been holding in reserve, a hidden weapon the Romney crew hoped would push their guy over the hump. What’s next, a tape from Obama’s childhood where he would like to get the world singing in perfect harmony?

There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing.

If Romney had proven himself competent at any point during this campaign, he might’ve been able to mitigate the damage, or at least issue a semi-believable retraction. But this is a candidate who somehow contrived to offend even the English — the Tories, even, past masters at giving offhand offense — when he stated London might not be ready for the Olympics. (It was.) And, to pick just one more among many, he’s also the candidate who, when he was asked how much “middle-income Americans” make, gave a range between $200,000 and $250,000.

The Fox News fools, of course, are trying to rally behind this, encouraging Romney to stick with that line of attack—a great way to lose not only the White House, but any chance of retaking the Senate, as well. Which could be the point: it was enough early on that no Republican with any genuine chance at a two-term presidency wanted anything to do with the 2012 election; I suspect the smart ones among them (and the intelligence of anyone in the GOP should from this point be measured by the speed at which they distance themselves from Romney) realize what a mess the world will be by 2016: global recession, mushrooming unemployment, massive debt burdens, neverending wars . . . how could anyone tossed into that not improve things at least a little?

Which, again, highlights the unfathomable failure of the Romney campaign. There are so many ways to hit Obama’s first term performance, yet Romney has missed with every swing. Obama extends Bush’s imprudent wars, pursues new ones, prosecutes whisteblowers for treason, executes American citizens extrajudicially, and kicks bin Laden’s corpse up and down the campaign trail; Romney calls him soft on terrorism. Obama maintains Goldman Sachs’ disastrous control of American economic policy, bails out underwater companies while deriding solvent ones, exacerbates global starvation through continued agricultural subsidies, and puts forward an unworkable piss-take of a budget; Romney refers everyone to Ryan’s almost equally unworkable budgetary scheme. Obama presides over a prison gulag filled with consensual criminals and an unconscionable percentage of America’s young black men; Romney says nothing on criminal justice reform. Obama holds up trade agreements to benefit his union cronies; Romney calls for trade war with China. It just goes on and on and on.

Going by the president’s approval ratings, this is an election that the Republicans could have won — but not by this candidate, and not with this campaign. Now there’s just one good thing the GOP can hope to take from the Romney campaign: getting a couple months’ jump on the postmortem.



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Backwoods Wars, Front Page Problems

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Responding to the September 11 attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt, Fox News correspondent Ralph Peters made this controversial statement: “Obama’s appeasement policy . . . won’t work against these radical Islamists. With people like these, when they kill four of yours, you have to kill 400 of theirs.”

Peters’ outrageous, counterintuitive “defense plan” is more a cynical observation than a suggestion. It reminds me of a scene of hillbilly justice portrayed in Lawless, a movie set in 1930s Virginia, during the Prohibition era. As thugs from one group prepare to kill two bootleggers from another, one young victim cries out his name and where he is from. The leader of the attackers immediately releases the boys and punishes his own men for what they were about to do, explaining in disgust, “The last thing I need is a blood feud coming after me.” We kill two of theirs, they’ll kill 200 of ours. So we don’t kill their two.

The title Lawless obviously refers to the renegade behavior of the film’s moonshining protagonists, but it also refers to the corrupt police officers who look the other way while they get their share of both the hooch and the profits. More importantly, the title refers to the kind of violent thuggery that often erupts in the absence of sensible laws — laws that protect property rights, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be left alone. Without a legal framework of basic rights enforced by judges, tyrants generally rise up to fill the void and enforce their own “laws.”

Lawlessis based on the true story of the Boudrant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who operate a moonshine business in the hills of Virginia. Forrest is something of a legend in the area because he has survived so many life-threatening events: for example, injuries sustained during World War I, the Spanish flu that killed both Boudrant parents, and violent attacks by would-be robbers. In the film he is a complex character, fiercely protective of family and friends but with an indifference to pain and just a hint of sadism that makes him unpredictable and dangerous. He is a sympathetic foil for the antagonist in the story, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fancy-dressed germaphobe with more than that hint of sadism; he’s cold, he’s mean, and he likes it. A big-city lawman from Chicago, Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime. When the Boudrant brothers refuse to pay, a backwoods war breaks out.

Narrating the story is the youngest Boudrant brother, Jack, a gentle soul who eschews violence and would rather spend his time hanging out with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and wooing his Mennonite girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). But when his brothers are attacked, Jack defends the family’s honor. He takes over the business, despite the added risks involved in transporting the hooch past Rakes’ mob of outlaw lawmen. Because fewer moonshiners are willing to take that risk, Jack can demand higher prices. Like drug dealers today, he takes advantage of the profits created by the government ban and spends his newfound cash on fancy clothes and fancier cars. Predictably, his gentle character begins to harden.

Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime.

The film has moments of bloody violence, including a scene reminiscent of the groundbreaking shootout that occurred midway through Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and pushed the limits of acceptability. But Lawless also has moments of sublime beauty, especially in the musical score, which is filled with folk music of the Virginia hills. Tom Hardy continues to stretch his acting muscles with another knockout performance as Forrest. Hardy first caught my attention in Inception (2010), then as the conflicted Ricki Tarr in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He even stood out as the lovestruck political assassin in the lightweight This Means War. I can’t wait to see what he does with the title role in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.

My favorite part of this film occurs during the epilogue. We all know that Prohibition finally ended, so I’m not giving away too much to let you know that life changes in Virginia when the law is repealed. Mason jars filled with colorless “white lightning” fade into Mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. It is reported that one character finds work in a cotton mill, while another turns the family property into a farm — a tobacco farm, ironically. “Choose your poison” indeed. Yes, they could have engaged in legal employment all along, but let’s face it: labor follows the profits. Who is going to work in a factory or a fast-food joint for minimum wage when black market profits are so much more lucrative? Governments can ban access to certain products and activities, but they can’t ban the demand for those products and activities. And when supply is artificially limited through government intrusion, prices and profits go up. It’s simple arithmetic.

Lawless is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that inevitably arise when governments try to mandate social behavior. Do-gooders in the early 20th century deemed drunkenness socially unacceptable, and outlawed the sale of booze. Crime syndicates, corrupt police, and shooting sprees were the unintended results. Missing the point, do-gooders followed in the footsteps of Prohibition with the War on Drugs, and untold misery has resulted: violent drug cartels, corrupt police, countless men and women languishing in prisons, and more shooting sprees. This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought the war against individual choice to new lows when he banned the sale of large sodas in New York City. Large sodas! Doesn’t he have more important things to worry about in the face of burgeoning welfare rolls, massive unemployment, and the skyrocketing price of public transportation? What new market distortions and legal corruption will result from this ridiculous ban on large soft drinks?

As a film, Lawless may not prove to be a timeless classic. But its themes are certainly timeless and, unfortunately, timely.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lawless," directed by John Hillcoat. The Weinstein Company, 2012, 115 minutes.



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Bernanke’s Thanks

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Among the myriad other disputes between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is a deep disagreement about Fed head Ben Bernanke. Obama loves Helicopter Ben, who is as prodigiously profligate monetarily as Obama is fiscally. Romney has already said publicly that (if elected) he would look to someone else when Bernanke’s term expires.

I have no doubt that’s a big reason why Bernanke announced a massive and open-ended new “QE3.” The Fed will pump $40 billion into the economy (buying mortgage-backed securities) every month until jobs are finally created. Given that the past massive injections of fed cash into the economy — you know, QE1 and QE2 — have not exactly created an employment explosion, the Fed may be buying those securities forever.

Short-term, the Fed’s announcement has resulted in a boost to the stock market. When you keep interest rates near zero, you basically drive capital into stocks. Raising the stock market higher is Bernanke’s gift to Obama, a big, wet, sloppy monetary kiss he hopes will get Obama reelected (and guarantee himself another term as well).

The bad thing, for everyone else, is that the value of the dollar will plummet downward. Both gold and oil prices therefore went up on the news.

The ratings agency Egan-Jones responded by dropping America’s credit rating from “AA” to “AA-“. In April, the agency had cut the rating from “AA+” to “AA.” In both downgrades, the agency cited concern about the rapidly growing deficit and declining dollar.

Egan-Jones VP Bill Hassiepen has said that the Fed’s “massive monetization” of debt is causing “sluggish to stagnant economic growth.” Hassiepen expects a rapid increase in the prices of energy and food, but, he wryly noted, “Unfortunately, we have a Federal Reserve that simply does not recognize the inflationary impact of food and energy prices any longer.”

No, what the Fed recognizes is that if Obama isn’t reelected, heads will roll, starting at the top. It will spend as much of our money as it feels it needs to do the job.




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Talking to an Empty Chair

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I keep hearing some people say that Clint Eastwood’s hilarious skit at the National Republican Convention was in poor taste. I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s famous quip that "good taste is the last refuge of the witless."

Indeed, I found it comical watching media insiders, even conservative ones, agonizing over Clint Eastwood's "disrespect" to President Obama as he mimed him telling Mitt Romney to perform an anatomically impossible act.

This is disrespect? To the president who by proxy or surrogate has accused Mitt Romney of schoolyard bullying, murder, lying, felony, dog-whistle racism, and income tax evasion, and who ran a video that showed Paul Ryan pitching granny into a ravine? When did we get so finicky and reverential about the president, particularly this president, who was tutored in the political graces in the corrupt down-and-dirty precincts of Chicago?

The insider campaign wonks who are expert in the art of manipulation claimed that Clint interrupted the touching emotional sweep of the painstakingly choreographed narrative leading up to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech. Mika Brzezinsky, co-anchor of "Morning Joe," said that Clint's shtick was "absolutely disgusting." And even Ann Romney claimed she "didn't know it was coming."

Such sensitive souls!

Governor Scott Walker said that Eastwood's speech made him “cringe,” and Roger Ebert added that he found Eastwood’s performance “sad.” But as the cameras scanned the convention floor I didn’t see anyone cringing or sad. What I saw was the uproarious laughter of an audience previously about to die from an assault of cloying sentimentality. The majority rose to their feet in cheering approbation, and many were laughing so hard they seemed on the verge of crying, if not rolling in the aisles. I have a hunch that many of these embarrassed and shocked TV newsmen were secretly laughing up their collective sleeves as well, and will wake up in the middle of the night and burst out with geysers of uncontrollable laughter.

There was a subtext to Eastwood’s funny, roguish skit: it covered some pretty deplorable behavior of President Obama and his dysfunctional administration; it was, in fact, a serious bill of indictment. But what Clint Eastwood really brought to the proceeding was some much-needed irreverence in a too carefully scripted presentation. It's called comic relief.




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