Recreating the Unique

 | 

“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



Share This


Protecting the Universe

 | 

Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



Share This


Life in the ’Hood

 | 

I’m always a little skeptical about a film that relies too much on a gimmick. Can the film stand on its own? That’s what I want to know. I’m happy to say that Boyhood, one of the most anticipated indie films of the century (okay, the century is only 14 years old) can indeed stand on its own. The gimmick is this: instead of using multiple actors or makeup and prosthetics to portray the same character at different ages, director Richard Linklater decided to film this movie over the course of 12 years, while using the same actors. The result is a series of 12 vignettes chronicling the experiences of a sometimes-single mother (Patricia Arquette); her two children, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and their father (Ethan Hawke).

Linklater is one of the most innovative directors of the independent film movement. His sprawling, virtually plotless Slacker (1991) gave rise to the term that many used to define a generation. A Scanner Darkly experimented with new techniques that turned live action into animation, while Bernie experimented with combining documentary and scripted narrative. Several of his films take place in one 24-hour period (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, to name a few.) So why not experiment with the idea of taking 12 years to film a movie that covers 12 years?

Movie geeks have been waiting eagerly for the release of this film. I saw it on opening night in a gigantic downtown theater that was virtually filled to capacity. I was not disappointed.

Much can happen over the course of 12 years. People change. Sometimes they become famous. Sometimes they fall into addictions or ill health. Sometimes they die. Kids who seem cute and precocious at age five may become dull and leaden actors at age ten or 12. (I suspect the producers of Modern Family have serious “buyers’ regret” over the choice of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily — but how could they have known when she was a cute little toddler that she would grow up without an ounce of acting ability?)

Linklater could not have known, for example, that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture would go to a film called Twelve Years a Slave, making it necessary for him to change his working title, Twelve Years, to the more generic and certainly less interesting Boyhood, in order to avoid confusion. He also didn’t know that Arquette would end up starring in a hit TV show (Medium) or that his daughter Lorelei would lose interest in the project and beg him to kill off her character (I won’t tell you how that family tiff was resolved). Nor did he anticipate that it would take nearly three hours to tell the story sufficiently. Or that Ellar Coltrane would turn out to be exactly the right actor to stand at the heart of Boyhood.

Like many stories that are told through the eyes of a child (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane, for example), Boyhood is not a kid’s flick but a grown up story that is given additional poignancy by the innocence of its young protagonist. Mom (Arquette) is a complex character who is trying to create a good life for her children. During the first half of the vignettes she is working her way through college and graduate school. But she makes terrible choices regarding men. Divorced from her children’s father, she goes through a series of abusive relationships and doesn’t seem able to rise above whatever it is that attracts her to this kind of man. The children suffer from her mistakes even as they benefit from her courage to leave a bad relationship. It’s a fascinating character study, and Arquette plays it just right.

The Texas setting is just right, too. Linklater hails from Houston, and he takes his audience on a virtual tour of the state as the family moves from place to place. Some of the locations are absolutely gorgeous.

Boyhood is much more than a filmmakers’ gimmick. The story works, the casting works, and the concept works. The film is long, but it is engaging, believable, and well worth watching. Once again, Linklater has created a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater. IFC Productions, 2014, 165 minutes.



Share This


The Joy of Work

 | 

Chef is a film about the joy of cooking, but more than that; it is a film about building a business, doing something you love, working together as a family, and promoting one’s enterprise in the age of social media. It’s a small film with a surprisingly big cast that includes Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., along with a slew of other well-known actors with whom director Jon Favreau has worked on such bigger budget blockbusters as Iron Man.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. He loves food, he loves cooking, and he loves the crew he has assembled in his kitchen. He is a true artist with a knife and a stove. But his focus on his work has led to a rift within his family. He is divorced from his beautiful wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he doesn’t know what to do on “divorced-dad weekends” with his charming 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony); he’s always in a hurry to get to the farmer’s market and plan the menu for the restaurant, and Percy is just in the way.

When Carl and his kitchen crew learn that a top food blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to the restaurant Saturday night, Carl wants to create a variety of new dishes to showcase, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stay with the tried-and-true menu that his regular customers know and enjoy. The blogger writes a scathing review, and Carl responds with his first-ever tweet, which he doesn’t realize is public. Their cyber war goes viral, and soon Carl is out of a job.

The red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Sadly, such obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

All of this leads to a classic road trip movie. Carl starts a traveling food truck business and takes Percy and his best friend, sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) with him. Together they travel from Miami to Los Angeles, developing delicious sandwich menus based on local foods and ingredients they discover in regions along the way. This is what makes the movie sing. Father and son work in perfect sync as they develop flavor combinations, cook sandwiches side by side, and discover local specialties. Percy tweets pictures and details about their journey, and customers eagerly await their arrival in new cities. The film becomes a delightful tribute to the small family business and the wonders of social media. Do what you love, and do it with the people you love, and life will be good — even if you are living in a food truck.

Of course, no one could really do this. America might be the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it’s not the land of the free market. Carl wouldn’t really be able to do this on a whim in a matter of days. As Kasey Kirby and Laura Waters Hinson demonstrate in their fine documentary about the food truck business, Dog Days (this year’s Anthem Film Festival winner for Best Libertarian Ideals), the red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Never mind that Carl is providing a product that customers crave and willingly purchase; you can’t sell food without health inspections, business licenses, and location permits, and these all take time and money to secure — lots of it. Sadly, these obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

But red tape is not the point of this film, so Favreau wisely sidesteps the issue by giving a brief nod to the permit requirement and then asking us to suspend disbelief about the time it would take to acquire these permits in every city along the road. He focuses instead on the sheer joy of working together in a family business. Like many families today, the Caspers have been pulled so far in different directions that there’s an empty space where the home once was. As the story starts, Inez is a successful event planner who must be available for her clients beyond the standard 9–5 workday. Carl’s chef duties are mostly performed in the evenings. Percy’s “job” is school. Maids and gardeners take care of the work they might have done together at home. They are related by DNA and by a family name, but their productive lives are completely separate. The things that give each of them a sense of identity — the things they produce — are unconnected. Like many couples today, their root system dies as they branch out in different directions.

When the family business brings them together, the Caspers feel joy again. Yes, they work hard. Yes, it’s hot and humid in the truck. Yes, young Percy gets hurt sometimes — he burns his hand on the lid of the sandwich maker, and he cuts his finger with a paring knife. But he doesn’t let it stop him. He loves working with his dad. He loves providing food for customers who line up to taste their sandwiches. He loves mimicking his dad and knowing that his own work matters.

Carl says to Percy as they embark on their adventure, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s commencement address to the Mercy College graduates at Sing Sing this year. As she praised their accomplishments she said, “I tried to go to college but I had learning disabilities and I failed. My mother told me, ‘You might not be good at this, but you are good at something. You just need to find it.’ And I found it.” Chef celebrates the joy of finding what you’re good at; the joy that comes from doing work that is productive, creative, useful, and fulfilling; and the joy that comes from doing it with those you love.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chef," directed by Jon Favreau. Aldamisa Entertainment, 2014, 114 minutes.



Share This


Apes Unlimited

 | 

In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, a film emerged reflecting on the necessity for both. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won an honorary Oscar for Special Achievement in Makeup Design, which did not become an official category until 1981), the original Planet of the Apes is often dismissed as a campy sci-fi costume flick. Yet it addressed important issues about war, technology, and what it means to be human.

Most people know the plot: after being cryogenically frozen and suspended for centuries, three astronauts crashland on a planet that is remarkably compatible with human life; it has the right atmosphere, temperature, water, and food. The big difference is that on this planet the apes are civilized scientists while the humans are, like Jonathan Swift’s “yahoos” in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels, uncivilized brutes. No one who has seen the film can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene. The message was clear: this will be our future if we do not change our course.

POTA was followed by four sequels in rapid succession (1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, and a TV series in 1974). Now, nearly 50 years later, the message is just as timely: wars erupt as cultures clash around the globe. An African-American is in the White House, but government-promoted racism continues to flourish. Laboratory experiments change our food into something not-quite-natural, while genetically changed strains of viruses and biowarfare threaten our DNA. It’s not surprising that a new set of cautionary prequels should emerge that imagine a prelude to the 1968 POTA and offer a similarlycautionary message about war and civil rights. The newest film is not only just as timely, but even more sinister.

No one who has seen the original Planet of the Apes can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene.

As Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) ends, an experimental cure for Alzheimer’s disease has mutated into a deadly virus that has led to the near demise of the human race while causing the apes (on whom the drugs were experimented) to develop language and technological skills. (See my review in Liberty.) Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the franchise, despite being a bit slow in the first half.

As Dawn opens, apes now populate the woodland north of San Francisco, and they use weapons, ride horses, and plan strategies as they hunt deer (yes, these apes apparently have become carnivorous). The opening shot, looking up from the floor of the forest at dozens of apes swinging from treetop to treetop, is both eerie and beautiful. But the humans have not become extinct. A few were able to survive the “simian flu” and are now living in isolated camps in San Francisco (and possibly in other pockets around the world). Inevitably, the world of the apes and the world of the humans collide when the humans enter the forest to look for a way to repair a dam that could provide hydroelectric power to the city.

The film makes a strong case for the idea that reactions to actions, not the actions themselves, lead to war, and that appropriate reactions can avert it. Refreshingly, the film does not imply, as one might expect, that humans (especially white humans) are always bad, and animals (especially black animals) are always good. Instead, there are good and bad characters in both groups. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy human who shoots when scared. His foolish action could lead to either retaliation (war) or conciliation (patrolled borders) from the apes. Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bitter ape who fears humans and wants war. He seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s playbook about how to use deception to influence public opinion. Under Koba’s leadership, the apes lock up the humans and their own peaceful dissenters, and steal weapons from the human arsenal. In a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apes can be seen in the background painting a list of rules on the wall of their dwelling, a list that begins with “Apes do not kill apes” — after Koba usurps Caesar’s role as leader.

On the other hand, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to lead the apes and humans, respectively, toward a negotiated peace. Caesar calms his followers by reminding them, “If we go to war, we could lose all we’ve built — Home. Family. Future.” He then turns to a solution reminiscent of Robert Frost’s response to the Cold War (“good fences make good neighbors”) by delineating boundaries between the two groups. Cross this line, and we fight. Malcolm recommends similar restraint with the humans. I like this suggestion that we judge others by their actions, not by their pedigree. Of course, Koba prevails, and the second half of the film is a tense, action-packed battle between humans and apes as Caesar and Malcolm try to restore détente.

The original POTA introduced a then-groundbreaking prosthetic technique that allowed actors playing apes to move their cheeks and lips and show emotion on their faces. It was so innovative that designer John Chambers won the Oscar for his achievement. Now the apes are made to move and talk in a completely different way. That’s Andy Serkis, king of the motion-capture creatures (Smeagol-Gollum, King Kong, the previous Caesar) playing Caesar the Ape, but he isn’t wearing a hairy body suit or a prosthetic mask; he’s wearing a tight-fitting body suit with computerized balls attached to record his movements. Those are his expressive eyes we see on the screen, but his ape’s body is drawn through computer-generated “motion capture” techniques using the patterns created by the electrodes attached to his body. The ape is then drawn over the movements, complete with fur, scars, and expressions.

Man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth.

Consider that there might be dozens of apes or other CG animals in each scene, that each ape has to be drawn individually on each frame, that there are 24 frames per second in this 130-minute film, that for much of the film the apes are communicating in an intricate form of sign language, and that it all looks so real that you forget it’s animation, and you begin to appreciate what a work of art this film is.

Film uses a language of its own to create metaphors. In this one, a fiery backdrop during a battle scene reminds us visually that “war is hell.” Similarly, as the film ends a man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth. In this version, the apes use sign language when communicating with one another; I expect that in the next, the humans will have devolved to the yahoos that Taylor (Charlton Heston) found when he “crashlanded to earth” nearly 50 years ago. If that film is anything like this one, it will be well worth watching.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Matt Reeves. 20th Century Fox, 2014, 130 minutes.



Share This


Point Counterpoint

 | 

Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



Share This


Ain’t That a Shame?

 | 

“You’d be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much.” Is there a more perfect lyric in the world, one reviewer asks. The lyrics of the Four Seasons expressed all the yearning of unrequited love. I can still remember the party where my adolescent heart was stirred while that song played in my mind. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” I hummed softly, but his eyes adored someone else. Oh what a night — the music of our youth stays with us and has the power to evoke long-dormant memories and emotions.

That’s one reason that Jersey Boys (like Mamma Mia) has had such a long and successful run on Broadway, playing to people who often sing along (to the annoyance of the person in the next seat). The Four Seasons were the “other” ’60s sound — not rock and roll and not Motown but simple, true lyrics sung in clear, clean harmonies with that strong countertenor of Frankie Valli set in just the right key for female teenyboppers. I learned how to sing harmony with the Four Seasons. They were a sound you could play in front of your parents.

Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally.

Their personal lives were another story, however — normalized at the time but recently placed in another light by the Broadway musical and now the film. As represented by the movie, the boys from Jersey — Tommy, Nicky, Joe, and Frankie (Bob was from a nicer background) — were little more than hoodlums, knocking over delivery trucks and breaking into jewelry stores when they were supposed to be in the library. They knew the beat cops by name, and for some of them the local detention facility was like a revolving door, as the characters gleefully admit in the film. Of course, this is the way it’s remembered by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, executive producers of the film; Tommy, Nicky, and Joey might remember it quite differently.

“There were three ways out of the neighborhood,” Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the audience. “Join the army, join the mob, or become famous.” The first two could get you killed, so singing was the ticket out. Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally. Their photos are set in a double frame and stand like a shrine of hope on the living room shelf of Frankie’s childhood home.

The first half of the film focuses on the boys’ backgrounds and their slow rise to fame through seedy nightclubs and bowling alley bars. Waiting over an hour for the first familiar song to appear in this film heightens the drama at its unveiling. I was tapping my foot impatiently. But when it finally arrives it reminds us of how sublime their harmonies were, and how simple their lyrics: “She-e-e-rry, Sherry baby, She-e-erry, Sherry baby. She-eh-eh-eh-eh-erry baby. Sherry baby. Sherry, won’t you come out tonight?” Sheesh! How did that ever make it to the radio? Yet it topped the charts and was followed by hit after hit that told our stories in song.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage.

The lyrics of the songs tell the story in the film too, although it all works better in the stage musical, where the production numbers are showcased. Instead of using the lyrics to carry the story forward as most musicals do, Eastwood inserts them almost like a sidebar to the story he prefers to tell. In the film the songs often play in the background, and often while the characters are speaking, so the effect is lessened.

The huge theater where I saw the movie held exactly four viewers at the 7:15 show on opening night. Four Fans for the Four Seasons. Sigh. With the popularity of the Broadway musical (and Clint Eastwood as the producer and director) the film had a disappointing turnout for its opening day. But there’s the rub: Clint Eastwood. Who would have thought this talented octogenarian director known for his spare direction and raw drama would turn to the Broadway musical genre this late in his career? Oh wait — he already did, and it was a disaster. Eastwood starred as the singing prospector who shares a wife (Jean Seberg) with his partner (Lee Marvin, who has purchased her from a polygamous Mormon) in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), a movie based very loosely on the 1951 play that ran for only 289 performances. Eastwood was ridiculous in that film, and he brings no genuine experience to the filming of this musical. He also uses actors with no genuine experience on screen, intensifying the problem.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage. With only one familiar face — Christopher Walken as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, who acts as a kindly godfather to the Jersey boys — there is no name other than Eastwood’s to attract film audiences. The four who play the Seasons are actually pretty good, (Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, Erich Bergen as composer Bob Gaudio, and Tony-award-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli), but they aren’t, well, they aren’t seasoned. Renee Marino, who plays Frankie’s wife Mary onstage and in the film, is simply annoying with her exaggerated movements and wild outbursts of emotion. I actually went home and looked up her background, expecting to learn that she is Eastwood’s newest girlfriend, but she isn’t. (Remember those godawful movies from the ’70s and ’80s when Sondra Locke was his main squeeze? They were every which way but right.) The most interesting actor is Joseph Russo, also a newcomer, and only because he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci. He’s credited in the movie with bringing Bob Gaudio into the group, back when Pesci was just another kid from New Jersey. Eventually Tommy DeVito went to work with Pesci, and Pesci took Tommy’s name for his character in Goodfellas.

The problem is that acting for the screen is quite different from acting for a live audience. A movie screen is 70 feet wide, making the actor much larger than life. The flick of an eyebrow or twitch of a finger can relay emotion and communicate thoughts. Stage actors, on the other hand, must play to the balcony. Their actions are broad, even in tender moments. When Mary leans across a diner table with her butt in the air and her lips pouting forward as a come-on to the inexperienced Frankie, it works for the stage but is comical and unrealistic for the screen. And Eastwood should know, because he is the master of unspoken communication. In interviews Marino gushes about how relaxed and easy-going Eastwood was on set, but she needed direction. Desperately. “I need you, baby, to warm the lonely nights” can be said without words and bring tears to the eyes. Keep it simple, and keep it real. As Frankie says to Bob Gaudio about the arrangement of a new song, “If you goose it up too much it gets cheesy.”

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore

Overall Jersey Boys is a good film that provides interesting background about the music industry. Touring and recording isn’t all glitz and glamour; it’s mostly packing and repacking, eating in diners, staying in nondescript hotel rooms where you aren’t sure which direction is the bathroom in the middle of the night, missing family events, and in the end getting screwed over by unscrupulous money managers. It’s tough. But the film doesn’t give us much perspective about the Four Seasons and the time period in which they wrote. They were the clean-cut lounge singers who made hit after hit side by side with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. They held their own during the tumultuous ’60s, just singing about love: “Who loves you? Who loves you pretty baby?” They paved the way for a whole new sound in the ’70s when they added a brass orchestra.

Despite the hardships of the touring life, that wonderful music makes it all worthwhile. When asked to describe the best part of being the Four Seasons, Frankie responds simply, “When it was just us four guys singing under a street light.” Anyone who sings knows that feeling. It’s the joy of making music together.

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore at the end of the Broadway musical. Wisely Eastwood used the recordings of the original Four Seasons for the closing credits instead of the voices of the actors who play them in the movie. The difference is profound. Valli had such a glorious bell-like quality to his falsetto, while Young’s is simply false. He tries hard, but the effort shows. In the first hour of the film, when people react to his voice as he is “discovered,” it’s almost puzzling. What’s so great about this nasally voice with the slight rasp that makes you want to clear your throat? In the closing minutes of this film, listening to the original Four Seasons, it all makes sense.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 134 foot-tapping minutes.



Share This


Action Plus Gravitas

 | 

Tight shot on the face of a man sleeping. His eye snaps open, and it is yesterday morning — again. He rises, and the day unfolds exactly as it did the day before. No one else knows that the day is being repeated, but he remembers, and he reacts. Each time he learns the best way to react in order to get where he wants to be. With eternity to learn and an infinite number of do-overs until he gets it right, the man develops skills, enhances relationships, and eventually gets the girl.

Groundhog Day (1993) is one of my favorite movies, but that’s not the film I am reviewing here. Edge of Tomorrow relies on the same premise of a neverending loop in which a man wakes up day after day in the same place, facing the same dilemma, surrounded by the same people doing and saying the same things. But he changes and grows with each repeated day.

As the film opens, an alien force has invaded Europe, burrowed underground, and started spreading across the continent toward England, China, and Russia. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media specialist with the Army who started in ROTC and rose to the rank of Major through office successes; he has never trained for combat, and he has no intention of going to war. When commanded to go to the front lines of a beach invasion in Normandy, he bolts. When next we see him he is handcuffed, stripped of his rank, and forced to join J Squad on the day they are going to invade France. He has no training with weaponry, doesn’t even know how to disengage the safety, and buckles under the weight of his heavy armor.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight, since he usually plays the tough guy who is cool as a cucumber under pressure. Of course, before long he is using his repetition of days to build up his skills and learn how to fight so that he can save the world. It’s an impossible mission, but someone has to do it. Helping him is Lt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero known as the Angel of Verdun because she almost single-handedly vanquished the alien enemy in a previous battle. That’s because Rita has also experienced repetition of days and used her repeated experience to anticipate the enemy’s moves. Together she and Cage fight to reach the source of the alien force and destroy it.

The story line is reminiscent of a video game in which the player adopts a character on the screen and fights through several different levels to accomplish a goal. Each time the player “dies” he has to start over, and each time he plays, he gets a little further in the game by remembering where the booby traps are. Often players work together, telling each other which tunnel or path is safe and which one has a lurking danger. Cage and Rita work together in this way, remembering what happened the “previous day” and moving further each time toward their goal. When Cage says to Rita at one point, “We’ve never made it this far before,” it sounds exactly like my munchkins playing Mario together.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight.

This video-game reference does not trivialize the film; it simply gives the viewer something more to ponder about metaphysics, the nature of life, and what you might do if you could see into the future and learn from your mistakes. A do-over once in a while could make all the difference.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Director Doug Liman has remembered and learned from the past. While Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from the concept of Groundhog Day, it is not doomed in any way. Moreover, Liman brings to this project a strong history in action films from his work directing the Bourne series. Edge of Tomorrow is fresh, exciting, and compelling. The references to the storming of Normandy give it a sense of gravitas missing from most modern action films (it was even released on June 6, to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion). The threat of a lurking menace that spreads unseen and underground until it has become unstoppable and can enter one’s mind gives the audience a sense of personal investment while suggesting that the enemy is a thought or philosophy, not an army. Even the solution for stopping the enemy — that is, getting inside the enemy’s mind and understanding his perspective — is also a powerful lesson for modern warfare. Edge of Tomorrow works on every level.


Editor's Note: Review of "Edge of Tomorrow," directed by Doug Liman. Warner Brothers, 2014, 113 minutes.



Share This


Another Perspective on Piketty

 | 

Someone acquainted only secondhand with Thomas Piketty’s book translated as Capital in the Twenty-First Century or who has only skimmed it might well dismiss it as a mere leftist, redistributionist tract. That would be a mistake and injustice — and thus counterproductive. Libertarian critics should try to answer Piketty’s findings, attitudes, and recommendations respectfully and seriously (unless, of course, they find themselves converted away from their own doctrine).

His tome of viii + 685 pages, full of tables, charts, and citations, is an impressive work of resourceful scholarship. A massive and detailed web site supplements it. I have neither the time and energy nor the competence to verify his voluminous statistics. Pieced together, as some of them are, from fragmentary sources (such as tax and probate records) of decades and even centuries ago, they must incorporate some elements of interpolation and educated guessing. Still, no reason is apparent for questioning his and his collaborators’ diligence and honesty.

Piketty avoids the pretensions of so much academic economics — decorative mathematics and dubious econometrics. (“[M]athematical models ... are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain and masking the vacuity of the content,” p. 574.) His book employs, and sparingly, only the simplest algebra; but I did find a few symbols and their definitions bothersome.

Piketty’s case for reforms is not mainly an economic argument but a sustained appeal to the reader’s intuition against extreme inequality.

For example, Piketty makes much of the inequality r>g as the condition of growth of the ratio of capital (wealth) to national income, g being the growth rate of the denominator. The condition would be trivially obvious if r, the numerator, were the growth rate of the capital stock; but Piketty usually, and misleadingly, calls it the “rate of return on capital.” That description would apply if all and only the earnings on capital were saved and reinvested. Expenditure of some capital earnings on consumption instead would reduce the growth of the capital stock and the capital-income ratio, as Piketty occasionally mentions; and saving or dissaving from labor income would also affect the ratio’s growth (or shrinkage).

Nevertheless, Piketty’s compilation of long-term statistics for several countries suggests a trend to him. Only occasionally does he mention that most of his income figures are of income before taxes and before supplementation by government redistribution. Anyway, the long-term trend of the capital-income ratio seems to have been upward, exacerbating the inequality of both wealth and income. The chief historical exception is the period 1914–1945, when wars and depression destroyed so much wealth.

Piketty gives particular attention to the concentration of income and wealth in the top 1%, or even the top tenth or hundredth of 1% of their distributions. He seems particularly concerned about great inherited fortunes and the lavish leisured lifestyles that they make possible (as in novels by Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, mentioned as a welcome change of pace from dense argument).

His remedy for great inequality would be not only highly progressive income and inheritance taxes but progressive annual taxes on total wealth itself. He recognizes the political unlikelihood of getting his wealth taxes enacted and enforced, however, because implausibly close international collusion of governments would be required. He draws on the literature of Public Choice little if at all. He supplements his arguments with page after page of the history of taxation in different countries.

Nowhere, as far as I noticed, and to his credit, does Piketty blame inequality for economic crises and depressions or commit the crude Keynesianism of recommending redistribution to raise the propensity to consume. He does not maintain that the apparent trend toward greater inequality will continue without limit. He does not maintain that the extreme wealth of only a few thousand families will give those few tyrannical power over their fellow citizens — far from few enough, actually, to be a coherent oligarchy. Nor does he (or his translator) toss about words like “unfair” and “unjust,” although he does occasionally aspire to more “social justice” and “democracy” in the inexpediently and popularly stretched sense of the latter word.

One might expect concern about inequality to include concern about further concentration of resources and power in the state. However, Piketty does not expect his more drastic and broad-based progressive taxes to raise much more revenue. Nor, perhaps inconsistently with not expecting this, does he worry about damaging incentives to work and innovate. Possibly he agrees with John Stuart Mill in thinking that the distribution of wealth can be separated from its production. Possibly, like José Ortega y Gasset’s Mass Man (The Revolt of the Masses, 1930), he regards the wonders of modern industrial civilization as automatically existing, like facts of nature. Although an avowed socialist in the loose European sense of the term, he does not want to destroy capitalism. He even welcomes considerable privatization: government agencies and employees need not themselves provide all the services that tax money pays for.

Wealth is not something that belongs to the government, which it may leave to its producers or redistribute as the country’s rulers see fit.

For Piketty, reducing inequality is a goal in its own right. I agree so far as reducing it means undoing government measures that actually foster it. These include aspects of crony capitalism: subsidies, tax privileges, protection from both domestic and foreign competition, and most of what makes highly paid lobbying worthwhile. Also at others’ expense, arguably, a policy of artificially low interest rates benefits Wall Street operators and wealthy stock investors and traders.

As I ended reading his book, I realized that Piketty’s case for reforms is not mainly an economic argument but a sustained appeal to the reader’s intuition, although not explicitly to envy. Intuition presumably carries more weight if the reader comes to share it himself without having actually been told what to think. If so, Piketty’s economic language and massive quantities of ingeniously gathered statistics amount to what I call a Murray Rothbard or Alan Reynolds style of argument: deploy such an array of facts and figures, dates, places, mini-biographies, and even personality sketches that, even if they scarcely add up to a coherent argument, you come across to your reader or audience as a consummate expert whose judgments command respect. But saying so may exaggerate; for Piketty’s tables, charts, and sketches of characters in novels may usefully jog the intuition. Anyway, one should not disparage Piketty’s impressive research and methods and their likely application in projects beyond his own.

As for an intuition against extreme inequality, I confess to one of my own, although it does not mean welcoming heavier and more progressive taxes. We should worry about undermining respect for private property as a human right and essential pillar of any functioning economic system. Wealth is not something that belongs to the government, which it may leave to its producers or redistribute as the country’s rulers see fit.

Still, the intuition persists, as it did with Henry Simons, that saint of the Chicago School of economics in its early days, who found inequality “unlovely,” and as it persisted with Nobelist James Buchanan, prominent libertarian, who advocated stiff inheritance taxes. Somehow, I am uneasy about the pay of executives said to be 600 times as great as the pay of their ordinary workers, even though they may well contribute more than that much to their companies’ revenues. I am uneasy about lifestyles of opulent leisure permitted by great inherited wealth, rare though they may be. I cannot justify or explain my intuition, which, anyway, is not crass envy.

I don’t call on public policy to heed that intuition, any more than I share the apparently spreading expectation that some authority take action against whatever offends somebody, whether the lifestyle, the behavior, the speech, or the suspected thought of someone else. I wouldn’t want an egalitarian intuition implemented in anything like Piketty’s ways. Government measures to alleviate or avoid actual poverty, even beyond the “safety net,” are something quite different.

An intuitive dislike of extreme inequality does not rule out unease at Piketty’s line of thinking. Again, however, I warn libertarians: don’t risk a boomerang effect by unfairly dismissing his work as a mere ideological tract. It is indeed a work of genuine scholarship. Dealing with its challenging ideas can strengthen the libertarian case.


Editor's Note: Review of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Belknap Press, 2014.



Share This


Mind the Gap

 | 

“Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine democratic societies.” — Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

French professor Thomas Piketty’s new book — ranked #1 on Amazon and the New York Times — is a thick volume with the same title as Karl Marx’s 1867 magnum opus, Capital. Many commentators have noted the Marxist tone — the author cites Marx more than any other economist — but that’s a distraction.

The author discusses capital and economic growth, and recommends a levy on capital, but the primary focus of the book is inequality. In mind-numbing minutiae of data from Europe and the United Staes, Piketty details how inequality of income and wealth have ebbed and flowed over the past 200 years before increasing at an “alarming” rate in the 21st century. Because of his demonstrated expertise, his scholarship and policy recommendations (sharply higher progressive taxes and a universal wealth tax) will be taken seriously by academics and government officials. Critics would be wise to address the issues he raises rather than simply to dismiss him as a French polemicist or the “new Marx.”

According to his research, inequality grows naturally under unfettered capitalism except during times of war and depression. “To a large extent, it was the chaos of war, with its attendant economic and political shocks, that reduced inequality in the twentieth century” (p. 275, cf. 471) Otherwise, he contends, there is a natural tendency for market-friendly economies to experience an increasing concentration of wealth. His research shows that, with the exception of 1914-45, the rate of return on property and investments has consistently been higher than the rate of economic growth. He predicts that, barring another war or depression, wealth will continue to concentrate into the top brackets, and inherited wealth will grow faster with an aging population and inevitable slower growth rates, which he regards as “potentially terrifying” and socially “destabilizing.”

If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

His proposal? Investing in education and technical training will help, but won’t be enough to counter growing inequality. The “right solution” is a progressive income tax up to 80% and a wealth tax up to 10%. He is convinced that these confiscatory rates won’t kill the motor of economic growth.

One of the biggest challenges for egalitarians like Piketty is to define what they mean by an “ideal” distribution of income and wealth. Is there a “natural” equilibrium of income distribution? This is an age-old question that has yet to be resolved. I raised it in a chapter in “Economics on Trial” in 1991, where I quoted Paul Samuelson in his famous textbook, “The most efficient economy in the world may produce a distribution of wages and property that would offend even the staunchest defender of free markets.”

But by what measure does one determine whether a nation’s income distribution is “offensive” or “terrifying”? In the past, the Gini ratio or coefficient has been used. It is a single number that varies between 0 and 1. If 0, it means that everyone earns the same amount; if 1, it means that one person earns all the income and the rest earn nothing. Neither one is ideal. Suppose everyone earns the same wage or salary. Perfect equality sounds wonderful until you realize that no economy could function efficiently that way. How you could hire anyone else to work for you if you had to pay them the same amount you earn?

A wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — the right to be left alone.

Even social democrats William Baumol and Alan Blinder warned in their popular economics textbook, “What would happen if we tried to achieve perfect equality by putting a 100% income tax on all workers and then divide the receipts equally among the population? No one would have any incentive to work, to invest, to take risks, or to do anything else to earn money, because the rewards for all such activities would disappear.”

So if a Gini ratio of 0 is bad, why is a movement toward 0 (via a progressive income tax) good? It makes no sense.

Piketty wisely avoids the use of the Gini ratios in his work. Instead he divides income earners into three general categories, the wealthy (top 10% income earners), the middle class (40%), and the rest (50%), and tracks how they fare over the long term.

But what is the ideal income distribution? It’s a chimera. The best Piketty and his egalitarian levelers can do is complain that inequality is getting worse, that the distribution of income is unfair and often unrelated to productivity or merit (pp. 334–5), and therefore should be taxed away. But they can’t point to any ideal or natural distribution, other than perhaps some vague Belle Époque of equality and opportunity (celebrated in France between 1890 and 1914).

Piketty names Simon Kuznets, the 20th century Russian-American economist who invented national income statistics like GDP, as his primary antagonist. He credits Kuznets with the pro-market stance that capitalist development tends to reduce income inequality over time. But actually it was Adam Smith who advocated this concept two centuries earlier. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith contended that his “system of natural liberty” would result in “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

Not only would the rich get richer under unfettered enterprise, but so would the poor. In fact, according to Smith and his followers, the poor catch up to the rich, and inequality is sharply reduced under a liberal economic system without a progressive tax or welfare state. The empirical work of Stanley Libergott, and later Michael Cox, demonstrates that through the competitive efforts of entrepreneurs, workers, and capitalists, virtually all American consumers have been able to change an uncertain and often cruel world into a more pleasant and convenient place to live and work. A typical homestead in 1900 had no central heating, electricity, refrigeration, flush toilets, or even running water. But by 1970, before the welfare state really got started, a large majority of poor people benefited from these goods and services. The rich had all these things at first — cars, electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning — but now even the poor enjoy these benefits and thus rose out of poverty.

Piketty and other egalitarians make their case that inequality of income is growing since the Great Recession, and they may well be correct. But what if goods and services, what money can buy, becomes a criteria for inequality? The results might be quite different. Today even my poor neighbors in Yonkers have smartphones, just like the rich. While every spring the 1% attend the Milken Institute Conference in LA that costs $7,000 or more to attend; the 99% can watch the entire proceedings on video on the Internet a few days later — for free. The 1% can go to the Super Bowl for entertainment; the 99% gather around with their buddies and watch it on an widescreen HD television. Who is better entertained?

Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate.

Piketty & Co. claim that only the elite can go to the top schools in the country, but ignore the incredible revolution in online education, where anyone from anywhere in the world can take a course in engineering, physics, or literature from Stanford, MIT, or Harvard for a few thousand dollars, or in some cases, for absolutely nothing.

How do income statistics measure that kind of equal access? They can’t. Andrew Carnegie said it best, “Capitalism is about turning luxuries into necessities.” If that’s what capital and capitalism does, we need to tax it less, not more.

A certain amount of inequality is a natural outcome of the marketplace. As John Maynard Keynes himself wrote in the Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), “In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth of and of capital improvements which distinguished that age [the 19th century] from all others.”

A better measure of wellbeing is the changes in the absolute real level of income for the poor and middle classes. If the average working poor saw their real income (after inflation) double or triple in the United States, that would mean lifting themselves out of poverty. That would mean a lot more to them than the fortunes of the 1%. Even John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that higher real growth for the working class was what really mattered when he said in The Affluent Society (1959), “It is the increase in output in recent decades, not the redistribution of income, which has brought the great material increase, the well-being of the average man.”

Political philosopher James Rawls argued in his Theory of Justice (1971) that the most important measure of social welfare is not the distribution of income but how the lowest 10% perform. James Gwartney and other authors of the annual Economic Freedom Index have shown that the poorest 10% of the world’s population earn more income when they adopt institutions favoring economic freedom. Economic freedom also reduces infant mortality, the incidence of child labor, black markets, and corruption by public officials, while increasing adult literacy, life expectancy, and civil liberties. If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

I have reservations about Piketty’s claim that “Once a fortune is established, the capital grows according to a dynamic of its own, and it can continue to grow at a rapid pace for decades simply because of its size.” To prove his point, he selects members of the Forbes billionaires list to show that wealth always grows faster than the average income earner. He repeatedly refers to the growing fortunes of Bill Gates in the United States and Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of L’Oreal, the cosmetics firm.

Come again?

I guess he hasn’t heard of the dozens of wealthy people who lost their fortunes, like the Vanderbilts, or to use a recent example, Eike Batista, the Brazilian businessman who just two years ago was the 7th wealthiest man in the world, worth $30 billion, and now is almost bankrupt.

Piketty conveniently ignores the fact that most high-performing mutual funds eventually stop beating the market and even underperform. Take a look at the Forbes “Honor Roll” of outstanding mutual funds. Today’s list is almost entirely different from the list of 15 or 20 years ago. In our business we call it “reversion to the mean,” and it happens all the time.

Prof. Piketty seems to have forgotten a major theme of Marx and later Joseph Schumpeter, that capitalism is a dynamic model of creative destruction. Today’s winners are often tomorrow’s losers.

IBM used to dominate the computer business; now Apple does. Citibank used to be the country’s largest bank. Now it’s Chase. Sears Roebuck used to be the largest retail store. Now it’s Wal-Mart. GM used to be the biggest car manufacturer. Now it’s Toyota. And the Rockefellers used to be the wealthiest family. Now it’s the Waltons, who a generation ago were dirt poor.

Piketty is no communist and is certainly not as radical as Marx in his predictions or policy recommendations. Many call him “Marx Lite.” He doesn’t advocate abolishing money and the traditional family, confiscating all private property, or nationalizing all the industries. But he’s plenty radical in his soak-the-rich schemes: a punitive 80% tax on incomes above $500,000 or so, and a progressive global tax on capital with an annual levy between 0.1% and 10% on the greatest fortunes.

There are three major drawbacks to Piketty’s proposed tax on wealth or capital.

First, it violates the most fundamental principle of taxation, the benefit principle. Also known as the accountability or “user pay” principle, taxation is justified as a payment for benefits or services rendered. The basic idea is that if you buy a good or use a service, you should pay for it. This approach encourages efficiency and accountability. In the case of taxes, if you benefit from a government service (police, infrastructure, utilities, defense, etc.), you should pay for it. The more you benefit, the more you pay. In general, most economists agree that wealthier people and big businesses benefit more from government services (protection of their property) and should therefore pay more. A flat personal or corporate income tax would fit the bill. But a tax on capital (or even a progressive income tax) is not necessarily connected to benefits from government services — it’s just a way to forcibly redistribute funds from rich to poor and in that sense is an example of legal theft and tyranny of the majority.

Second, a wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — financial privacy and the right to be left alone. An income tax is bad enough. But a wealth tax is worse. It requires every citizen to list all their assets, which means no secret stash of gold and silver coins, diamonds, art work, or bearer bonds. Suddenly financial privacy as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment becomes illegal and an underground black market activity.

Third, a wealth tax is a tax on capital, the key to economic growth. The worst crime of Piketty’s vulgar capitalism is his failure to understand the positive role of capital in advancing the standard of living in all the world.

To create new products and services and raise economic performance, a nation needs capital, lots of it. Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate. The only time capital declines is during war and depression, when capital is destroyed.

He blames the increase in inequality to low growth rates, when, says, the economic growth rate falls below the return on capital. The solution isn’t to tax capital, but to increase economic growth via tax cuts, deregulation, better training and education and productivity, and free trade.

Even Keynes understood the value of capital investment, and the need to keep it growing. In his Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes compared capital to a cake that should never be eaten. “The virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”

What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

 

If the capital “cake” is the source of economic growth and a higher standard of living, we want to do everything we can to encourage capital accumulation. Make the cake bigger and there will be plenty to go around for everyone. This is why increasing corporate profits is good — it means more money to pay workers. Studies show that companies with higher profit margins tend to pay their workers more. Remember the Henry Ford $5 a day story of 1914?

If anything, we should reduce taxes on capital gains, interest, and dividends, and encourage people to save more and thus increase the pool of available capital and entrepreneurial activity. A progressive tax on high-income earners is a tax on capital. An inheritance tax is a tax on capital. A tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains is a tax on capital. By overtaxing capital, estates, and the income of our wealthiest people, including heirs to fortunes, we are selling our country and our nation short. There’s no telling how high our standard of living could be if we adopted a low-tax policy. What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

Hopefully Mr. Piketty will see the error of his ways and write a sequel called “The Wealth of Nations for the 21st Century,” and will quote Adam Smith instead of Karl Marx. The great Scottish economist Adam Smith once said, “Little else is required to carry a state from the lowest barbarism to the highest degree of opulence but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” Or per haps he will quote this passage: “To prohibit a great people….from making all that they can of every part of their own produce, or from employing their stock and industry in the way that they judge most advantageous to themselves, is a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Belknap Press, 2014.



Share This
Syndicate content

© 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.