Blue-Suited Vultures and Childlike Demands

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Margin Call is another offering in the growing list of movie dramas and documentaries that attempt to explain the economic meltdown of 2007–08. This one gives an insider's view of a giant financial institution — perhaps a Lehman Brothers, although that company is never identified — as its analysts suddenly realize that it can no longer sustain its high levels of margin-driven debt against its falling asset values.

The film opens with a cadre of blue-suited vultures — most of them women — storming the office to let employees go. At the end of the day, nearly half of them have been fired, including middle manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). Dale has been working out a logarithm that seems to be predicting financial catastrophe, but no one will listen as they usher him out the door. This scene is perhaps the most intense of the whole movie. Women literally tap men on the shoulder and signal for them to follow, an action reminiscent of the Rapture that will herald the beginning of Armageddon. It is hard to say which is better — to be summoned away, or to be left behind to face destruction.

As a parting gesture, Dale tosses a flash drive to his protegé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and warns him to be careful. Sullivan opens the file, and after adding a few mathematical computations of his own, discovers that the company's net worth is less than the debts it owes. Considerably less. And with the multiplier effect caused by buying on margin, the gap will widen exponentially in a matter of days, unless the markets as a whole turn around. An emergency meeting is called, with all the corporate bigwigs arriving in the middle of the night.

Here the film becomes heavy with pointed dialogue intended to explain the problem to those of us in the popcorn gallery. It is not unreasonable to assume that every one of these high-powered business people in this high-powered room is a genius at math and finance. Yet CEO John Guld (Jeremy Irons), sinister in his impeccable gray suit, his impeccable British accent, and his frighteningly sharp face, threatens Sullivan, "Speak to me as you would a child, or a golden retriever." This childlike demand is designed for the audience's benefit, of course, but it is almost laughable in the circumstances and reveals J.C. Chandor's inexperience as a writer and director. He doesn't yet know how to set up exposition believably.

The explanation that Sullivan then delivers is so abstract and obtuse that only someone who already understands it would be able to fill in the missing specifics and render it understandable to others. We know that the company has borrowed too much against assets that are diminishing in value, but we don't gain any further light from having seen this movie, and we certainly don't learn anything about how to prevent a similar meltdown.

Films such as "Margin Call" continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

More interesting are the ethical conversations that follow. After Guld reminds the Board of his motto of success: "Be first, be smarter, or cheat," he adds, "I don't cheat, and we aren't any smarter, so we will have to be first." This means that his brokers will have to sell all their assets within hours of the market opening in the morning, before buyers realize that the asset values are dropping.

Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a 34-year veteran of the firm, offers the free-market answer to government regulation when he argues, "But you'll be selling something you know is worthless. They will never buy anything from you again." He's right, of course. The greedy businessperson looks for the quick profit that comes from offering inferior quality at an inflated price, then hurriedly moves on. But the wise businessperson offers good quality at a fair price, knowing that satisfied customers will provide steady gains from repeat sales for a lifetime. Cynically Guld gives the opposite view of the free market: "We'll be selling at the 'fair market value.' It's not our fault if the fair market keeps falling." Acknowledging Sam's point about repeat customers, he continues, "This is the big one. We have to get out all at once."

To entice brokers to destroy their own careers by ruining all their customer rapport and good will, the company leaders offer them huge incentive packages for unloading the majority of the company's assets by the end of the day. The brokers may not be able to get a job for a while, but with this kind of compensation, they won't have to. Integrity can't be bought, but it can be sold.

Karl Marx argued that those who deal in money deal in nothing. They don't produce anything of value, and they don't consume anything of value. They just provide a medium of exchange. Thus, in a Marxist view, being a salesman or stock broker is the lowest form of labor. This point comes through in the film when Dale laments, "I used to be an engineer. I built a bridge once." He then recounts how much time and energy he has saved for all the people who have used his bridge every day for years. The implication is clear: as an employee of this financial institution, his life has been meaningless.

Sam Rogers responds in a similar fashion when Guld says derisively, "You could have been a ditchdigger" instead of a wealthy financial analyst. "Yes," Sam agrees, "but then at least there would be some holes in the ground." Guld continues in Darwinian style, "It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than it's ever been. . . . You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. . . .We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong."

This cynical attitude about the role of financial institutions is continuing to drag down our economy as surely as investing on margin did. It willfully ignores the fact that financial institutions provide capital for funding those bridges and ditch-digging projects. And it encourages viewers of films like this to ignore that fact. These films continue to garner glowing praise while vilifying an economic system that allowed America to become the wealthiest, most powerful, and most generous country in the world.

For a relative newcomer (this is his first full-length feature film) Chandor managed to do several things right. He secured major funding and assembled an all-star cast that includes not only Tucci, Spacey, and Irons but also Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and many others. He has garnered accolades from the mainstream critics. He has written a script that, despite its schoolboy reliance on potty language (thus its R rating), has "gravitas." But while it may seem "important," it isn't very entertaining, or very thrilling. Interesting is about as high as my praise will go. His direction is often affected and heavy handed, especially with his actresses. Wait for Margin Call to be available on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Margin Call," directed by J.C. Chandor. Before the Door Pictures, 2011, 107 minutes.



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Unsubstantiated: Without Substance

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In Katherine Mansfield’s one-act play Trifles, trifling evidence such as a reticent personality, a half-cleaned table, a broken birdcage, and a canary with a broken neck lead the audience to conclude that a woman has murdered her husband. Motive and opportunity. That’s all it takes to find her guilty in the eyes of her peers. The play is written with a delicious sense of irony and poetic justice. My students at Sing Sing don’t buy it, however. “That’s just circumstantial evidence!” they complain. “You can’t convict on that!”

They’re right, of course. Motive and opportunity — and sometimes opportunity alone — once led to a vigilante justice system that culminated in countless lynchings in our nation’s history. Compounded by a healthy dose of police-induced false witness, it continues to lead to wrongful incarcerations today.

Motive, opportunity, and false — or at least unsubstantiated — witness lie at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s new film, J. Edgar. Eastwood has created a kind of wrongful incarceration inside a film that will stand as an unending sentence. Instead of relying on what is known about J. Edgar Hoover’s public life, Eastwood chose to focus on the very private life that was always hinted at but never confirmed. Books have been written about Hoover, but the conclusive evidence is missing. Even Eastwood acknowledges in this film that Hoover’s official biography may have been full of inaccuracies. The people who might have known the facts are dead, and the famous confidential files that Hoover collected over the years no longer exist. Writers can speculate about their contents, and they have. In print. But no one actually knows.

Hoover’s greatest legacy was his insistence on using evidence-based science to investigate crime. He recognized, for example, the value of using fingerprints, ballistics, and marked money to identify criminals. If he were alive today, he would cheer the use of DNA evidence. His was a bureau of investigation first and foremost.

“J. Edgar” ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

His not-so-great legacy was his willingness to trample constitutional rights in his march to justice. He was determined to protect America from political subversives, kidnappers, and organized crime rings. To do this he needed to create a public outcry that would (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) make additional security seem worth the cost of essential liberty. Several early scenes in J. Edgar emphasize Hoover’s disregard for constitutional rights. Again, if he were alive today, he would probably be at the forefront of Homeland Security and the TSA.

With Eastwood as director, Leonardo DiCaprio as actor, and the most influential law enforcement leader of the 20th century as its subject, J. Edgar, which opened this weekend, ought to be one of the most fascinating and powerful films of the year. Instead, it is overlong, underinteresting, and often just plain creepy.

Much of the creepiness comes from the way Eastwood portrays Hoover's relationships with his mother (Judi Dench); his secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); and his lifelong friend and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Fighting crime gets short shrift in this film that focuses on speculations about Hoover's private life. Eastwood pays very little attention to Hoover’s work in the Bureau, except to show how Hoover manipulated public opinion about crime to federalize the FBI and expand his power.

Arrests of notorious criminals in the 1930s are presented as photo ops for Hoover. The Kennedy assassination is mentioned, but receives less than two minutes of screen time. The Lindbergh kidnapping weaves throughout the plot, mostly to demonstrate Hoover’s conflict with states’ rights, but the tone regarding the kidnapping is strangely detached and unemotional. Even the bombing of private homes by anti-American groups in 1919 is presented as an exercise of free speech.

But what of the private life on which this film dwells? Much of what is “known” about Hoover’s private life is based on hearsay and innuendo, motive and opportunity. The film is unable to settle on a clear point of view. Was Hoover a homosexual? Possibly. He never married. He had a close relationship with Tolson, who also never married. But Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, never married either. Does that make her a homosexual as well? Or simply a woman dedicated to her job, as Hoover always claimed to be?

And why should his private relationships matter, anyway? My biggest concern about this film is that, after deciding to establish that Hoover and Tolson were lovers, Eastwood pulls back, suggesting that they weren’t lovers after all. He presents their relationship as awkward, creepy, and heartless. There are plenty of scenes to suggest homosexuality: Tolson significantly passes a white hanky to Hoover at their first meeting (an anachronistic reference to a code that seems to have developed in the early 1970s); they hold hands in the back seat of a car; Tolson tells Hoover, “I want us always to have lunch and dinner together,” almost like a fiancé setting down the rules. And yet, when Tolson kisses Hoover, at the culmination of a physical fight reminiscent of those awful 1950s movies when a man would often slap a woman into erotic submission, Hoover responds furiously, “Don’t ever do that again!” What gives? Either they are seeing each other romantically or they are not. I think Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

Even creepier is Hoover’s relationship with his mother. Hoover's father is portrayed as suffering from psychotic paranoia. His mother is domineering and flirtatiously predatory. She parades her new gowns for him, dances with him, buys a diamond ring for him. He is controlled by her and obsessed with her. Judi Dench is at her best in this role, and if this were a fictional film about fictional characters, I would say bravo. Chances are that having a mother like that would indeed lead to psychosexual deviance. But the problem here is that Eastwood is portraying as fact scenes that can only be speculative. And he is suggesting that homosexuality is a psychosexual deviation.

Eastwood was trying to portray Hoover’s own conflict over his homosexuality, but it gives the film itself a decidedly homophobic tone.

An additional source of creepiness is in the prosthetic makeup used to age the characters as the plot moves back and forth between the 1970s and the 1930s. Armie Hammer, in particular, looks like he is dressed as an alien for Halloween, or for a skit on Saturday Night Live. The prosthetic material does not move like skin, and the liver spots that dot his forehead and face are hideous. Hammer is so handsome and debonair as the young Tolson that it comes as a shock each time his character moves into the 1970s.

Much has been written about Hoover’s secret life, and rumors have entered the realm of “everybody knows.” But secrets are just that: secrets. Hoover's confidential file is legendary, in the true sense of that word, but no one knows what was actually in them, because all the files were destroyed by Helen Gandy as soon as he died. But this lack of concrete evidence has not prevented authors, journalists, and filmmakers from speculating on their content.

It is an understatement to call J. Edgar Hoover a complex man. He was a fierce patriot who saw nothing wrong with deporting naturalized citizens exercising freedom of speech. He was a crime-fighter who broke laws to fight crime. He is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little in order to protect your country.” He was a man with an enormous ego fed, perhaps, by private demons. He may have been a hypocrite who vilified homosexuals while engaging in homosexual acts himself. But to quote my Sing Sing students, that’s all circumstantial evidence. The only people who actually know the truth are dead. Eastwood’s film convicts J. Edgar by demonstrating a possible motive and a definite opportunity, fueled by probable false witness. In the process he has created a film that is homophobic itself.

At 137 minutes, J. Edgar is long. It isn’t suspenseful. It isn’t interesting. And it isn’t reliable. If you want to see a film that presents a more reasoned, though still critical, portrait of Hoover, I suggest you rent Public Enemies (2009) instead.


Editor's Note: Review of "J. Edgar," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2011, 137 minutes.



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Parents and Children

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The Way is a quiet film with a quiet soundtrack that emphasizes the quiet introspection of its main character, Tom (Martin Sheen). But do not equate “quiet” with “boring.” This is a compelling film with a compelling story, told against the backdrop of the beautiful Pyrenees.

Tom is an ophthalmologist who has trouble seeing things clearly. He has chosen a traditional path for his life: He attended a respectable college, entered a respectable career, and reared what he thought would be a respectable family. His son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez), has taken a different way. “I want to see Spain, Palau, Tibet!” he exclaims to his father during what will be their last day together. “Come with me,” he pleads. But Tom is too practical. He has his ophthalmology practice to consider. Leave for two months or more? Just to wander along a mountain trail? When he shouts back about choice and accountability, Daniel responds tersely, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

The two part angrily, but it is abundantly clear that Tom loves and misses his son. In one early scene, Tom’s receptionist informs him that Daniel has left a message while Tom was busy with a patient. Tom’s disappointment is palpable. “Did he leave a number this time?” he asks anxiously. “Do you know where he is?” Any parent who has been estranged from an adult child knows this feeling and can relate to Tom’s despair.

The next phone call is the one no parent ever wants to receive: Daniel is dead. While setting off to walk across the Pyrenees along the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage also known as “The Way of Saint James,” Daniel was caught in a freak storm. Tom must fly to Spain to identify the body and bring Daniel home. When the coroner suggests that cremation is an easier way to transport the body back to America, Tom decides that he will help Daniel complete the journey by walking the path himself and depositing a handful of Daniel’s ashes at each way station.

Along the way Tom meets several other pilgrims, each traveling The Way for seemingly practical reasons. Joost (Yorick van Wagengingen) is a jovial Dutchman who simply wants to lose weight for his brother’s wedding. Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a flirtatious cougar who wants to quit smoking at the end of the journey. Jack (James Nesbitt) is a journalist looking for a good story.

All these characters have deeper spiritual conflicts that they have avoided facing. The film becomes a journey of introspection, self-discovery, and companionship as they travel not together, exactly, but side by side. Tom’s self-deception is perhaps the most pronounced, and he makes the deepest discoveries. Several times Tom sees Daniel, or imagines he sees him, in a crowd or on a hill, encouraging him and urging him forward. Daniel’s great desire was for Tom to accompany him on this journey. By dying, Daniel has found a way to make it happen.

The Way is a film about the relationship between a father and a son, made by a father and a son. Emilio Estevez, who wrote, directed, produced, and performs in The Way, seems to be Sheen’s less wayward offspring. One can’t help but think about the heartache Sheen must be experiencing in real life as he has watched his more celebrated son, Charlie Sheen, blow up in public over the past year. The younger Sheen was finally fired from his successful TV show, “Two and a Half Men,” because of problems associated with accusations about drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex. The elder Sheen’s own heartache as a father is apparent in his portrayal of Tom, a man tortured by the way he said his last goodbye to a son whose way of life he did not approve. He plays the role with restraint, but his body language and facial expressions effectively convey his character’s deep emotions.

Tom tells himself he is walking The Way for Daniel, but as one pilgrim wisely tells him, “You walk The Way for yourself. Only yourself.” This is true of life, of course. We make the life we live. Another character tells Tom, “I wanted to be a bullfighter. My father wanted me to be a lawyer.” He blames his father for his failure to choose a more satisfying path, but it was his own choice to put his father’s approval ahead of his own happiness. The essence of good parenting is to provide protection and opportunity without forcing children into a way that is not their way. And above all—never say goodbye in anger.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Way," directed by Emilio Estevez. Filmax, 2010, 121 minutes.



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And the Winner Is — Ryan Gosling

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Ryan Gosling is having a helluva great year. First he demonstrated his comedic depth and timing in Crazy, Stupid Love. Then in Drive he gave one of the quietest, subtlest, most understated, and yet most over-the-top-brutal performances since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Gosling is the man who made grown men cry in The Notebook. He's one of the finest actors in Hollywood. And he's thinking of retiring. At 30. Please, Ryan, say it ain't so!

But now he has stolen the spotlight from the master scene-stealer himself, George Clooney, in The Ides of March.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a campaign staffer and media specialist for presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Stephen is a career campaign worker with the goal of becoming a campaign manager some day. But Morris is a candidate Stephen believes in. This time it goes beyond business. He really wants Morris to win.

As a libertarian, I had a hard time agreeing with the idealistic Stephen on this. During several scenes, Morris is heard campaigning in the background while political intrigue is developing in the foreground between Stephen and other characters. His slogans are intended to be taken seriously (director-producer-screenwriter Clooney is, of course, an outspoken Democrat), but they are laughably naive. Here’s a sampling:

"The rich complain that our tax policy is a redistribution of the wealth, but what they really want is distribution of the wealth to the richest Americans by our government." This is received with wild applause, as though our paternalistic government somehow creates all the wealth in the country and then doles it out to its favorite sons. (Sadly, this silly idea seems to be believed by many Americans.) In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines." Shorelines? I’ll bet you weren’t expecting to see that at the climax of the sentence.

"The cause of terrorism is oil," he naively observes. "If we don't need oil, the terrorists will go away." This simple-minded foreign policy is quickly followed by Morris' economic strategy: "Within four years of my administration, no new cars will run on combustible engines, and we will lead the world again!" Now there's a plan to jumpstart this economy!

And this one: "Everyone should be able to afford college. Under my administration, all 18-year-olds will perform two years of mandatory national service, and when they return, their college tuition will be free." Stephen cynically tells Morris this is a win-win proposition because voters are over 18 and thus would not have to serve, while people under 18 can't vote. Doesn't he realize that people under 18 have parents who are over 18? Doesn't he realize that the "free tuition" would have to be funded by taxpaying voters? And doesn't he realize that "mandatory service" is not “free”?

In case we didn't get the point that the wealthy cause all our ills, he adds, "Greed and corruption ruin our industries and our shorelines."

The first half of the film focuses on the background machinations of the campaign trail, especially Stephen's interactions with Morris's campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the manager of Morris' chief opponent. These scenes are intended to create suspense leading toward the second act, but they are dialogue-heavy and rely too much on the audience’s understanding of the background politics. The film is adapted from a stage play, and often this leads to a screenplay that is too heavy in exposition. The scenes are smart and sassy and intended to be ironic, but irony only works when the audience knows the dual meaning of what is said and can anticipate the punchline or unintended result.

In this case, it doesn't quite work. The film's conflict pivots on a meeting, early in the train of events, between Stephen and Tom. The meeting is in a public place and lasts a few minutes. Ida (Marisa Tomei), a seasoned campaign reporter, gets wind of the meeting and threatens to print the story, as though it would create a major scandal. Sure, people working behind the scenes might be concerned about the purpose of such a meeting, but in light of the fact that no information is exchanged, would the public be alarmed? Would anyone care? Come on! There are any number of legitimate reasons for representatives of the two campaigns to meet. James Carville and Mary Matalin, darlings of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, are married, for heaven's sake! This is no scandal, and it weakens the first half of the story, when suspense should be developing.

Nevertheless, if the viewer is able to suspend disbelief about that, the scandal that develops in the second half of the film, when the campaigning ends and the dirty tricks begin, is dynamite. It involves a beautiful young intern (Rachel Evan Wood) whose father (Gregory Itzin, the Nixon lookalike who played slimy President Logan in 24) is president of the DNC. Tension mounts, rising toward a showdown that more than makes up for the slowness of the first act. But now the focus is on personal relationships, not on politics.

Director Clooney wisely allows his fourth-billed actor to run away with this show. Giamatti, Clooney, and Hoffman may be the award-winning veterans, but Gosling is the ascending star. At one point his character is struggling with what to do about the clashing dilemmas. Instead of hamming it up with scenery-chewing angst, a la Giamatti (who plays his role with Machiavellian effect, I might add), Gosling turns inward. At one point we see him seated in a straight-backed chair, eyes staring forward, virtually interrogating himself. Suddenly his eyes glance to his right, as though he were reading his own mind. Nothing else moves, and nothing is said. So simple. So effective.

Clooney's own politics are well known in Hollywood and throughout the country. He uses his celebrity to spread political propaganda for the Democrats. So it may seem surprising to see him portray a Democratic candidate who is corruptible and opportunistic. But this cagey maneuver effectively defuses any sense that this is a propaganda project. It allows the film to transcend party politics and appeal to a broader audience. Unfortunately, however, Clooney adds a throwaway line early in the film that reveals his true feelings. Campaign manager Zara defends a campaign decision by saying, "We are simply doing what the Republicans have been doing successfully for years." In other words, the Republicans made him do it. Mike Morris may be a Democrat in philosophy, but his mistakes are entirely Republican. Bravo, Clooney!

The film's title, The Ides of March, suggests a conflict between loyalty and betrayal in high places, and in that respect, the film delivers. Clooney's own politics aside, it is not so much about political policy as it is about office politics. It is about friendship, revenge, and disillusionment.

My favorite line from the film is a character's justification for retaliation: "You didn't make a mistake. You made a choice." The Ides of March isn't a great film, but it's a good film with several great performances. I think it would be a mistake if your choice is to miss it. Moreover, Ryan Gosling recently announced on Conan O'Brien's show that he might not be making any more. And that choice would indeed be a mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Ides of March," directed by George Clooney. Columbia Pictures-Cross Creek, 2011. 101 minutes.



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Immigration: Meeting the Challenge

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A deeply contentious issue in American politics is immigration, especially illegal immigration. As recently as 2007, the issue caused major fissures in both major parties. And the debate is equally heated in many European countries.

Stepping boldly into the immigration debate is economist Gary Becker, who proposes a novel — nay, radical — solution to the problem in a short new book by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Becker is the 1992 Nobel Prize winner in economics, receiving it for producing a wealth of research using the standard microeconomic model to explicate a wide variety of human behavior, including behavior in fields traditionally considered outside the domain of economic analysis. He has done seminal work in areas such as addiction, marriage and family economics, human capital, criminal behavior, national demographics, and discrimination.

Becker begins by reviewing the international immigration trends. He notes that one of the main motives for immigration is the large average income gap between rich and poor countries. Despite the fact that poor countries have progressed economically, that gap is still large. Another big influence is fertility gaps among nations, with almost all European nations having fertility levels well below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), while in many areas of the developing world, the fertility rate is still high.

Becker notes that opposition is strong against unrestricted immigration in developed countries; and accordingly all of them — including the US since 1925 — have more or less restrictive immigration laws. But as he adds, while many other countries (such as Australia, Canada, and the UK) allow people in for work-related reasons, our law permits immigration primarily for family and humanitarian reasons.

In an aside, Becker mentions a common feeling among his libertarian friends, who say we ought just to go back to our (alleged) historical position of welcoming all comers. But while he usually inclines towards libertarian principles, he objects (as did Milton Friedman) that modern America is a welfare state, and this will give an incentive to some people to come for governmental benefits.

To the idea of just limiting by law how quickly new immigrants could receive welfare benefits, he replies that such laws would be hard to implement, and anyway, the immigrants would soon be voters, so unless we could select people inclined to vote against welfare programs, the new immigrants would simply vote for the limitations to be lifted.

Becker points out the anomaly of America's limiting immigration by the most highly trained foreigners (for example, by means of the low cap on the H-1B visa program), and indicates that these limitations on legal immigration lead to large amounts of illegal immigration.

Recognizing that besides bringing benefits, immigrants bring costs (crime, welfare, and medical costs, etc.), Becker devises a characteristically direct and simple solution: countries should just sell the right to immigrate. The government could exclude the obvious cases (such as criminals, possible terrorists, and people with communicable diseases) and charge everyone else who wants to come, say, $50,000 (Becker’s figure).

He argues the merits of this simple scheme by adducing a number of points. First, it would attract the most skilled immigrants — such as those with technical degrees — who could easily either pay the fee themselves or find employers who would pay it for them. Again, more young people would immigrate than old ones, because the young would have more time to pay off the fee or earn it back (if they borrowed it from a third party). Moreover, his system would attract the immigrants most committed to being permanent citizens, because the ones who only plan a temporary stay would be deterred by the loss of their fees.

Another argument Becker offers is that his system would lessen the resentment citizens feel toward immigrants. In a welfare state, ordinary taxpayers fear that immigrants will be “free riders,” taking government benefits but not fully contributing to pay for them. The revenue brought in every year by the immigrants’ fees (about $50 billion for America under its existing rate of legal immigration) would help to offset the costs incurred by them.

A problem with this argument is that in America, hostility to immigration grew dramatically in the 1910s and 1920s, leading to legislation in 1925 that virtually ended it, but welfare programs as such were virtually nonexistent at the time.

Becker also argues that his system would not block poor though highly skilled workers, because they would be able to get loans, which their employers would be ready to pay. A counter here is that if other nations don’t charge a similar fee, the skilled immigrants would likely choose to immigrate to those nations. Similarly, his system would incentivize domestic high-tech firms to move their operations to countries with no immigration fees.

Becker concludes by noting that the fee amount he picked is arbitrary, and might be set higher or lower depending upon how many people we would want to allow in, and that there are many details that would have to be worked out, such an how to set the fee for spouses, children, and people fleeing persecution. In a later discussion, he admits that a variant on his scheme might be to set an annual quota and let prospective immigrants bid, with the highest bidders getting the available slots.

But this brings up another problem with his proposal: it is silent about how high to set the limit for legal immigration. This is no minor matter, for research done by Robert Putnam and others seems to show a significant cost to society from widespread immigration, especially when immigrants cluster in a community. The issue is that of “social capital” — the depth and breadth of social networks in a community, from which spring the valuable but hard to quantify habits of mutual trust and reciprocity. Under Becker’s proposal, how do we know whether asking even $50,000 for each immigrant will keep immigration to a level at which assimilation will occur quickly enough that social capital is not undermined?


Editor's Note: Review of "The Challenge of Immigration," by Gary Becker. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2011. 66 pages.



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Hail to the Victor

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Joseph Ho, a writer for Liberty, tells me that on September 10 he was in Ann Arbor when the University of Michigan was preparing to meet its traditional rival, Notre Dame, on the field of Michigan Stadium. Threading his way through the pre-game crowds on the downtown streets, Joseph was accosted by a small boy, who ran up to him and shouted, “Hail!”

As you may know, Michigan’s fight song begins with the words, “Hail to the victors valiant!” That’s what the little boy was repeating, in his way; and Joe was charmed by his greeting.

But if there is one pleasure more intense than that of being hailed, it is the pleasure of finding someone you want to hail. It is therefore with great pleasure that I hail the publication of a book of essays by Leland Yeager, a distinguished economist and longtime contributor to Liberty. Confronted by Yeager’s additions to learning, the rest of us should feel like small boys. Yet we have something to hail.

Yeager calls his book Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?: Essays in Political Economy. I won’t spoil the pleasure you’ll have in reading it by revealing the answer to the title question. It’s a great question, a fundamental question, and Yeager’s answer will not only inform but entertain you. As for the rest of the book — I couldn’t put it down, literally. I read it in bed, I read it in supermarket lines, I read it while I was supposed to be working. It’s a fascinating book.

Leland Yeager is a professional economist. That’s fine, but only a few professional economists have ever had his skill at developing the principles of their field. Much less have they displayed his breadth of interest in intellectual and historical issues. The 28 essays in this 500-page book have all the world as their subject, from the nature of the various schools of economics to the problems of democracy to the debate about free will to the theories of dear old Henry George to the writing of speculative and alternative histories. Every essay shows a mind that is individual, alert, probing, and knowing; every essay develops both the essential ideas and the curious ramifications of its subject. And every essay is interesting; every essay makes you want to know its author, as well as its subject, more. Fortunately, Yeager gives you 28 occasions for doing that.

Anyone who reads this book will learn the nature, scope, and analytics of libertarian economic theory (and practice, too). So it isn’t just for libertarians. But libertarians will benefit the most from it, because Yeager’s question-making mind constantly brings up new topics for us to consider. They are all vital topics, and Yeager’s rigorous intellect carries us far down the road in thinking about them. You may agree with him — as I ordinarily but not always do (I have debated with him in these pages)— or you may sharply disagree. But you will find him an excellent companion. I don’t need to tell you how seldom that can be said of other economists.

I’ll go farther. In an ideal world, scholars and academics would write nothing but the truth, as they found it, fully displaying their logic and evidence, and courting the most vigorous debate from informed opponents. Unfortunately, the academic world seldom lives up to that ideal. Yeager does, and it takes courage to do so. It takes courage, these days, to write real English, instead of academic jargon or (in Yeager’s field) the kind of analysis that substitutes numbers and formulas for thought. But Yeager always addresses himself to the intelligent person, not the narrow and desiccated specialist, and he treats the intelligent person as his friend in a great intellectual adventure, an adventure in which any thinking person would want to partake.

Here is true achievement. Hail!

 

 


Editor's Note: Review of "Is the Market a Test of Truth and Beauty?: Essays in Political Economy," by Leland B. Yeager. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011, 538 pages.



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Liberty's Leading Ladies

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John Blundell has just released a book designed to acquaint Americans with a fascinating, though largely unknown, part of their history — the role of women in maintaining (indeed, helping very significantly to create) America's tradition of individual liberty. His book is a series of introductions to 22 women who did important things for liberty.

The women are, in chronological order: Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, the Grimké sisters, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bina West Miller, Madam C. J. Walker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, Lila Acheson Wallace, Vivien Kellems, Taylor Caldwell, Clare Boothe Luce, Ayn Rand, Rose Director Friedman, Jane Jacobs, and Dorian Fisher. Twenty-two women. How many of them do you know?

Most Americans will recognize Washington, Stanton, Stowe, and maybe Adams. Libertarians will recognize Paterson, Rand, Lane, and Friedman — maybe Jane Jacobs too. People interested in abolition and the progress of black people in America will add Sojourner Truth, Madam Walker, and others to their list. Conservatives will welcome Luce and others. But all of them deserve to be known to everyone who is interested in American achievement and American character, as well as American ideas about individual freedom.

Few of these women were libertarians in the contemporary American sense. The libertarian movement (first intellectual, then political) is best dated from the 1920s. But all of them had something important to do with ideas and practices of liberty with which libertarians will proudly acknowledge a connection.

Blundell is to be congratulated for presenting a broad spectrum of interests and occupations. The most obvious occupation for an advocate of liberty is that of writer, and there are many professional writers represented: Stowe, Paterson, Rand, Lane, Caldwell, Luce . . . But business people are also prominent in this book. Who can exceed the personal interest and allure of such businesswomen as Madam Walker, one of America's great black entrepreneurs, or Vivien Kellems, the great anti-tax crusader?

Who wouldn't want to know more about these dynamic individuals? Blundell's format limits him to about ten pages for each; but once you know these people exist, you can read more about them, and he offers suggestions for further reading.

I'm not an unskeptical audience, about anything. So I would quarrel with some of Blundell's judgments, one of which in particular I wish he would rethink: the high value he places on Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom (1943). Lane was a good writer, sometimes a writer of genius, but Discovery is a poor book — wandering, disorganized, self-contradictory, circular in logic, chronically wrong about historical fact.  If you want to see Lane to advantage, read Free Land (1938) or Give Me Liberty (1936). You'll find those books rewarding, and (something different) you'll like their author.

Such animadversions are, however, beside the point. Blundell’s project seems to me exactly right. The women he discusses are full of personality, full of vitality, full of fascination for any intelligent reader. It’s a disgrace that, as Blundell observes, so few people, so few libertarians, know much about them (with the exception of Ayn Rand). Blundell’s discussions are of exactly the right length and kind to stimulate interest. The book can be read at one sitting, as I read it, or at occasional moments in a busy week. In either case, it will entertain and inform. It’s a particularly good candidate for a Christmas gift to intelligent friends, libertarian or not. I would like to see it in the hands of young women, because young people right now are under great pressure to conform and become anything but vivid, eccentric, complex, vital, creative, or libertarian. And that’s no way to live.


Editor's Note: Review of "Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History," by John Blundell. New York: Algora, 2011. 220 pages.



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Grim, Gripping, and Curiously Refreshing

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In the 14th century, bubonic plague killed an estimated 75 million people, including, perhaps half the population of Europe. Historians calculate that roughly the same number were killed by the Spanish influenza in 1918 — 5 to 6% of the world's population at that time. Several films have speculated on what would happen worldwide if another supervirus broke out; they range from 1971's The Andromeda Strain andOmega Man to 1995's 12 Monkeys and Outbreak — and this summer's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Contagion. That last movie opened this weekend.

Surprisingly, given the familiarity of the theme,Contagion is a compelling film. Its calm, subdued tone, almost documentary in style, creates a growing sense of tension and authenticity that is somehow more riveting than the hysteria evoked by other films. Here, a character reacts in an unflustered, uncomprehending way to the news that his wife has died; his lack of emotion shows his unwillingness to process the horrifying information. The scene is profoundly moving — more poignant than if he had broken down in tears.

Contagion follows several plot lines, as health workers from the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet), WHO (Marion Cotillard), and private industry (Elliott Gould, Jennifer Ehle) try to trace the disease back to its original human host, contain its spread, and devise a vaccine. Director Steven Soderbergh deftly demonstrates how quickly we can be exposed to disease as we go about our daily lives, touching objects that others have touched. If you weren't a germaphobe before, you are likely to become one after seeing this film.

The film's title refers, of course, to the contagion of disease, but it offers multiple layers of additional meaning. We see how fear, rumor, and warnings can also be contagious, passing quickly from one person to another in an exponentially widening circle.

Meanwhile, we see the breakdown of normal distribution chains as people stop going to work, either from sickness or fear of sickness, and others are unable to purchase necessary supplies, such as food and medicine. Interesting moral problems arise as well.Situation ethicists often use the survival scenario to justify stealing. Ordinary people do also: when pondering whether a person should die in a snowstorm rather than break into a privately owned but unoccupied cabin, most would argue that it is all right to break the law in order to save one's life. But what if thousands of people are faced with starvation at the same time?

In this film, looting erupts as people become desperate — but that is not presented as an acceptable solution. Nor is the government's welfare solution — distributing food and medicine "fairly" — presented as working well, especially when there isn’t enough for everyone. In fact, if the film suggests anything, it is that people should prepare for disaster relief themselves, by stocking up in advance on food, medicines, bottled water, and yes, guns, for a self-imposed quarantine. I found this call for self-reliance refreshing in a Hollywood film.

It was also refreshing to see the pharmaceutical companies portrayed as good guys for once, as people working around the clock and taking personal risks to discover a vaccine. Yes, there are the usual barbs about profiteering, but the film acknowledges that everyone, not just the corporate bigwig, is strongly motivated to earn money, and that this is not such a bad way to control the distribution of goods. The alternatives — looting, or lining up for insufficient handouts from the government — are shown as leading to chaos.

Contagion is a fascinating, gripping thriller. The story is believable, and the acting is superb. But let me warn you: you will probably feel compelled to stop on the way home for a few gallons of bottled water and several cases of canned tuna and ramen noodles. And don't forget the plastic gloves — you won't want to be touching anything for a while . . .


Editor's Note: Review of "Contagion," directed by Steven Soderbergh. Warner Brothers, 2011, 105 minutes.



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The Best of the Alien Films

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Our summer of the aliens ends with the best alien encounter movie of the decade. Attack the Block has it all: mysterious creatures crashing out of the sky; kids on bicycles pedaling to save the planet; a mass of hairy apes climbing up buildings; and avowed enemies unitingagainst the invaders. Add to this a truly libertarian hero who learns that "actions have consequences," and enough blood to paint an elevator. What more could you want from a summer movie?

You might not have heard of Attack the Block, but you probably know its pedigree. It's a British film produced by Edgar Wright, who made Shaun of the Dead (2004) and last year's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It's directed by Joe Cornish, who was also involved in Hot Fuzz (2007) and the upcoming Tintin. I have to admit, these films are an acquired taste, but I think they are a taste worth acquiring.

The story takes place in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings in the poor part of south London. As Sam (Jodie Whittaker) walks home from her job as a nurse, she is mugged by a gang of threatening young men in ski masks. Their crime is interrupted by an alien falling out of the sky and into a car right next to them, and Sam is able to run away. The rest of the film follows the young thugs as they first try to make money from the beast and then run for their lives as the creature's larger pals come looking for it.

One of the unexpected delights of this film is the way we get to know the boys themselves. These are not hardened criminals but novice thugs on bicycles who strut down the street to impress each other while surreptitiously calling home to reassure their parents that they will be back by ten. Interestingly, Joe Cornish says he was inspired to write this film by being mugged by a gang of boys who seemed as scared as he was. They are led by a young tough with the unlikely name of Moses (John Boyega), who turns out to be quite the leader — almost like the preacher in Poseidon Adventure.

Moses recognizes that they can't rely on the police to help them, or even to believe them, so they must rely on themselves to escape the aliens and save the block. They don't seem to feel it is their responsibility to save the world, just their own little corner of it. As a libertarian, I like that. And then there are the unexpected side characters: the crazy drug dealers who get involved, the little wannabes who call themselves Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) . . . and the rich kid wannabe . . . and the crazy weapons . . . and clever lines . . . Just trust me. It's a great movie. And the less you know in advance, the better.

This is the best kind of sci-fi horror movie. Early encounters with the aliens take place off screen or behind walls, with sudden quick bursts of teeth or fur that don't let us focus enough to see what they look like. We just know they are terrifying. We see them creeping through the shadows, with occasional glimpses of their neon-bright teeth, but we don't have a full view of the creatures until at least halfway through the film. To be sure, there's enough blood and gore to warrant the R rating, but the violence is brief and somehow fun.

Give Attack the Block a try. You'll be laughing with horror and screaming with delight.


Editor's Note: Review of "Attack the Block," directed by Joe Cornish. Studio Canal, 2011, 87 minutes.



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"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

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The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2x4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Help," directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.



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