Friday, September 14, 2012

Judge Not

Jesus, on the Mount: "Judge not, that you be not judged." Confucius: "What you do not wish for your self, do not do to others." Probably apocryphal Lakota chief: "Oh Great Spirit, grant me the wisdom to walk in another's moccasins before I criticize or pass judgment."  I struggle with all of them.

I've been thinking lately about the judging thing, and how much of our culture is based on violations of the Sermon on the Mount.  The entire Presidential campaign, for example, both parties.  What kind of awful person would . . . fill in the blank.  Buy companies and fire people.  Hang out with Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright.  What kind of awful monster must he be?  We all know what those super-rich venture capitalists are,  how morally depraved is their very profession.  And what the heck is a 'community organizer?'  Someone who tells poor people how to sucker us hard-working taxpayers out of our hard-earned dollars.

The Daily Show did a terrific bit from the DNC convention.  I couldn't find the link, unfortunately, but it involved their correspondents--Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Samantha Bee--talking to Democratic delegates, and asking them to characterize Republicans, specifically Tea Party Republicans.  The Democratic folks were saying 'we're inclusive, we don't exclude anyone.'  And the correspondents would press them, 'what are Republicans like,' and they'd say, 'red-necks, beer guzzling hicks with muscle shirts and tobacco stains down the front, intolerant, racists, homophobes.'  And on and on.  Conservatives, of course, do the same; liberals are 'latte-drinking, granola eating, Godless, Constitution hating, self-loathing anti-Americans.'   Just for grins and giggles, I googled 'liberals are' and 'conservatives are,' and my computer exploded from all the vitriol.

But it's even more fun when it's personal. Who doesn't love a tasty morsel of gossip? Do you know what s/he did?  Do you know what I heard?

What made me think about these issues is a news story I saw in the paper a couple days ago.  It was interesting, it covered a local story, not one of any prominence.  A thirteen-year old girl had been sent an I-phone by a thirty-one year old man, who asked her to take nude pictures of herself on it, and then send them to him.  The girl couldn't figure out how to use the camera function, and asked her mom, age thirty-five, to take them for her.  So this woman took nude pictures of her thirteen-year old daughter, and sent them to a guy she described in the story as 'a friend.'  And the guy and the mom had been been criminally charged in the case. 

Why would the paper cover this case, this incredibly sad, but actually pretty minor case.  No issues of general import were at stake, after all.  Why is this news?  Seen another way, though, of course it's news, of course they covered it.  My gosh, it's amazing!  An ickiness factor that's off the charts.  What was this woman thinking?  What kind of Mom would act that way?

It's an occasion to judge.  It's an invitation to self-righteousness.  It's news, because it's so easy to condemn, well, everyone.  The creepazoid 'family friend.'  The no-moral-compass Mom.  The thirteen year old would seem to be the victim here, but, come on, she had to know what was going on.  The Mom said in the story, it was all okay, because the man had promised he wouldn't have sex with her daughter until she was eighteen.  Are you kidding me?

But how ought we, as Christians, or as Confucians, or as normal everyday moral human beings, how ought we to consider this story.  One possibility is to think, 'this has nothing to do with me, I'm just not going to think about it, glad the cops caught the guy.'  But another is to wonder what might be behind this story.  What combination of past abuse and low self esteem and crushing poverty and horrible family history and, maybe, substance abuse and who knows what else, led this woman, the Mom, to the point where she could think taking that photo was something she could or should or would do?  Can't we see her compassionately?  What about the guy--isn't there such a thing as a cycle of abuse, abused children growing up to become abusing adults?  Did the sins of his fathers land on his head?  If he's ill, can he be treated? And what about this child, this thirteen-year-old?  What chance does she have?  Where will she go, who will look after her, her mom being in jail?  Maybe she lands in the system, and maybe that works out okay for her, but it sure doesn't go well for everyone, and she's got to have been damaged and harmed and vulnerable. 

Aren't they all ill?  Can they be healed?

And yesterday, we saw the images, the horrible images, of rioting and violence and hatred and a deep-seated lust for revenge.  And there's plenty of judging to go around.  Saw one commentator, unhelpfully suggesting that while all Muslims aren't terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims. (Which also happens not to be true.)  A major world religion was gratuitously insulted, and a lot of Muslims responded by rioting, maybe because they live in places with no hope and no opportunities and only their God, who was just attacked, to cling to.  And, of course, 'American' is also a buzz word worthy, their minds, their condemnation--judging is what's ubiquitous. Compassion much less so.

And we sit at home and watch reality TV, more incitements to judge, and watch police procedural dramas where we actually get to BE a judge, sort of.  "I think the tall bearded guy did it.  He looks sneaky to me." 

Am I saying I'm actually good at this not-judging thing? Oh, heck no. Yesterday, I called Terry Jones all sorts of horrible names.  I judge all the time.  It's awful. 

But Jesus wouldn't require not judging of us if it were easy.  It's not.  It's the second hardest thing in the world.

And forgiving our enemies is even harder. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When values collide

The murder of a US ambassador.  Other embassy officials also killed. The anniversary of 9/11 is always a volatile time: this year, an anti-Islamic film, released on Youtube, has led to tragedy.

The film in question is called Innocence of Islam. Here's a link to the English language version of the 13 minute trailer for it.  Here's a Wikipedia article describing the film and 'Sam Bacile,' its purported filmmaker. As you can see, there's no particular reason to think 'Bacile' exists.  If you watch the link, you can see how crudely the film is made, how badly acted and filmed. It's been promoted in the States by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. Two years ago, Jones made headlines by announcing he was planning to commemorate 9/11 by burning Q'urans.

When this excerpt from the film appeared on YouTube, Muslims protested.  I can hardly blame them.  Islam reveres the Prophet Mohammed, and the film about him is just disgusting garbage, a film animated by nothing but hatred, informed by a frankly pornographic sensibility.  Egypt erupted; crowds gathering around the US embassy.  The Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, issued this statement: "We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet.  I condemn and oppose all those who insult The Prophet.  But it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.  I call on everyone to take that into consideration, to not violate Egyptian law . . . to not assault embassies." Good for him, I think. 

As crowds outside the embassy in Cairo gathered, Senior Public Affairs officer Larry Schwartz issued this statement:

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Schwartz cleared this statement with Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers.  The Ambassador, Anne Patterson, was in Washington at the time. There's some confusion about whether or not Schwartz was asked to revise the statement before releasing it.

This statement, by Schwartz, has become controversial.  Mitt Romney characterized it as an apology for American values, and has been sharply criticized for doing so.  I don't want to get into the politics of it, but I can't for the life of me figure out what Romney's talking about.  I think Schwartz did a masterful job.  I think he should be applauded.

What are American values? It seems to me that this is a situation where two central American values collide.  One American value is religious pluralism, the idea that we respect and honor all religious beliefs and traditions.  That value was surely violated, in the most egregious fashion, by this terrible film called, with ham-fisted irony, Innocence of Islam.  Surely we, as Americans, do not believe in or support crude attacks on a major world religion.

But an equally important value is freedom of expression.  Pastor Jones has the right to show this film for his congregation, just as we support the right of 'Sam Bacile' to make such a film.  I'll confess, there is a part of me that wants to tie Terry Jones up and ship him to Al Queda, with a note saying 'here's your guy, we don't want him, do anything you want to to him.'  I do feel a tiny atavistic urge in that direction.  But the First Amendment is most needed when the expression we're protecting is obnoxious.  And I also cherish the First Amendment right to call Pastor Jones a disgusting, repellent, contemptibly irresponsible bigot.  I have the right to call 'Sam Bacile', whoever 'he' 'it' or 'they' might be, a sub-human maggot, to say his film makes my flesh crawl. 

For his part, Mitt Romney also has the right to say of Schwartz' statement, “it's disgraceful that the
Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attack."  Put another way, in a Presidential race, both candidates are allowed to say foolish and irresponsible things. 
Look, Schwartz found himself in a difficult position.  Egypt has no democratic traditions. They haven't been a democracy, well, ever, not ever for over seven thousand years.  President Morsi's statement seems reasonable to me.  His people were deeply offended and angered, understandably so.  It must be hard to explain to Egyptians how American values include allowing this film to appear on YouTube, that our government really can't just censor it and arrest the guy or guys who made it.  But not arresting them doesn't mean 'America' (the government or the nation or the people or the culture) are anything but disgusted by it.  We can hate something, really truly loathe it, and also allow it. 

What is becoming increasingly clear is that Schwartz' statement, issued in Cairo, had little or nothing to do with the subsequent tragedy in Benghazi.  The Libyan protests provided cover for Al Queda opportunism--the evidence now suggests that an Al Queda cell in Libya attacked and killed US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three of his staff.

We're going to have to work with Libya to figure out who attacked us and why and what we can do about it.  We're going to have to figure out how to communicate who we are and what we stand for with a terribly offended Islamic world.  Tough choices, difficult times.  We will again be attacked, I suspect, and we will again see our commitment to our values challenged.

Meanwhile, I'm not looking forward to  next September.  And yes, images of our flag burning, of anti-American graffiti on the walls of our embassy, those images are upsetting.  But take into account context. Egypt has been a democracy for, like, ten minutes. They've been ruled by a ruthless dictator, backed by US weapons and treasure. They're disinclined to like Americans, for good reasons. They also rely on us economically--tourism is a major revenue source. They have no democratic traditions, at all, none. They have 25% unemployment. For many Egyptians the only stability and order in their lives is Islam. Which a film just insulted and desecrated, a film distributed by YouTube, owned by Google. Never mind that the filmmaker isn't American. They know who Terry Jones is, and he likes it.  

We need time, patience, forbearance. A foreign policy that didn't support vicious dictators that abuse the human rights of their own citizens; that would help.  And we need, not to apologize for who we are or the values we cherish, but to explain, clearly and sympathetically and empathetically, just what those values are and what they mean. This statement is only a tiny thing, a minor incident.  But we need to demonstrate too.  In our actions, what it means to live in a democracy, what it means to be an American.  Persuasion, gentleness, meekness.  Love unfeigned. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

D & D

A friend of mine recently posted a Facebook quiz.  It had well over a hundred questions, many of them moral/ethical, which you were supposed to answer.  Would you cheat if you knew you couldn't get caught?  That kind of thing.  Plus other questions about your physical abilities.  The idea was, if you were a D & D character, to discover what kind of D & D character you would be.  Turns out I'm a level 6 chaotic good cleric.  I think that means I shouldn't ever fight anything--I should use spells instead.  Which sounds about right, except that I don't actually know any spells.  But I suppose I could learn some. 

I have never in my life played D & D.  But my oldest son loves it, and is, according to his friends, one of the world's great Dungeon masters.  And my younger son loves it too, as does my son-in-law.  I think we're sort of a D & D family, kind of.  I would very much like to play sometime, but I gather it takes a long time to learn and get good at, and I'm not sure when I would.

But I like fantasy novels, as does my wife and oldest daughter.  I loved the Harry Potter books, and was reading them aloud to my kids before they were cool.  I was good at reading Harry Potter.  Had voices for all the characters, except that my Harry and my Ron, unaccountably, were indistinguishable. One of my favorites was Mad-eye Moody, except I gave him a really gravelly voice, and it hurt my throat.  So to the extent that D & D is about fantasy (about constructing, on the fly, new fantasy scenarios), we should be down with it.

One of my favorite things about D & D are the alignments.  There are nine possible alignments; characters are either good, neutral, or evil, and either chaotic, neutral, or lawful.  I love that.  'Lawful evil' suggests someone like Adolphe Eichmann, for example; evil, certainly, but within the context of a system; his evil is orderly. (Certain college administrators I have known fit nicely here.)  Chaotic good, however, means someone inclined to do good, but undisciplined, unsystematic.  Bill Clinton comes to mind.  Alignments are more than a useful tool for the construction of a fantasy; they make real world sense. 

When I was much younger, and taking creative writing classes, I remember, every class without fail included this: the well-meaning play (or story or novel) about the Dangers of Dungeons and Dragons.  The plays were about innocent high-school-aged kids who become obsessed with a fantasy game based on the occult.  It takes over their life.  Their grades drop.  They become anti-social, withdrawn. Their families despair.  D & D becomes a gateway drug (or drug-like experience), to, you know, ouija boards and Wicca and satanic possession and drinking mare's blood by the light of the full moon.  And, you know, eventually, teen suicide.

Man, I hated those plays/stories/novels.  I was young and arrogant and I'd say mean-spirited things in class and I think I offended people.  I didn't play D & D--I was a big enough nerd to, but my friends and I tended to express nerdiness through the music of Gentle Giant.  And limericks.  But I knew enough about D & D to defend it.

Older generations always freak out over what younger generations think is fun.  That's always been true, and remains true today.  "These kids, they're all . . . gyrating.  To music.  It's so . . . sexual.  They call it--I don't know if I have this right--waltzing.  Waltzing!" Jitter-bug, The Twist, break-dancing, krumping.  There's always a Cool New Thing, and it always freaks out old folks (in fact, that's most of the appeal) and it's pretty much always turns out to be harmless fun and no big deal.

The fact is, getting good at anything takes a lot of time and practice, and can look like an obsession to outsiders.  I always love it during the Olympics when they feature X-games style sports, like snowboarding.  I think of someone like Shaun White, and imagine the conversations with his family when he was kid, about why he had to waste all his time skateboarding and stuff.  I don't know that that happened, maybe his family was totally cool with it, and super supportive and all, but I like to imagine massive family battles.  Apollo Ohno's Dad was apparently always in his camp, for example. Good for him, but I don't suspect that's mostly true.

Are video games a waste of time?  Probably, sure.  But kids like doing cool fun stuff that their parents don't approve of. For parents, freaking out over what kids do for fun is our idea of fun.  I've been in those conversations too.

"How's Jimmy?  He's fifteen now, right?"

"Oh, he's driving us crazy.  Teenagers, you know?"

"In what way?"

"Oh, he's got this game.  He wants to play it with his friends all the time.  I'm so afraid we're losing him."

We parental units can get a good couple hours fun out of that conversation.

But unless the thing your kid is doing is, like, starting a meth lab, it's probably not worth bugging out about.  My sister-in-law has a favorite phrase: "is this the hill I want to die on?"  Is this fight worth it?  Mostly she decides it isn't.  And that's not abdicating a parental role. We parents can set a more effective example if our kids don't think of us as the Fun Police. My favorite baseball writer ever, Bill James, once said that he was always getting in trouble in school because he'd was a class clown, joking about his teachers and getting laughs from it, and because he spent every waking hour thinking about baseball, and specifically, baseball stats.  He can't remember a single thing he learned in any of his classes.  What does he do now?  Makes a very good living writing about baseball (developing a writing style around making smart-alecky comments about baseball establishment figures) and re-thinking baseball stats.  The two things he got in trouble for became the two things that made him a millionaire.

Fact is: getting good at any game takes a lot of time, and is fun enough that you'd want to spend that time.  I'm too old to really count as a gamer--but I've put in my time on Madden, too.  I think I'm pretty good at it. I'll never be great though: Madden requires better hand-eye coordination than I have.  But EA Sports, who makes Madden, hires literally hundreds of computer geeks.  All of whom love football, and love goofing around on computers. 

And now my son is in Grad School, and he's teaching for the first time, and he's nervous and scared about it, and he's also doing brilliantly.  He tells me about the exercises he does in his class, and I'm amazed and impressed; he's so imaginative.  But I knew he'd be a fabulous teacher.  I know that, because he's a fantastic Dungeon Master, and those skills transfer.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Last Ounce of Courage: A McNaughton painting comes to life

I went to see Last Ounce of Courage because Mike Huckaby told me to.  That's actually literally true: I got one of those robo-calls yesterday, in which the recorded voice of Mike Huckaby said this film was for anyone worried about Americans losing their freedoms, suggesting I check it out.  A preview for it also aired before the screening of 2016: Obama's America I saw and reviewed a few days ago.  And I had an afternoon free.

In this review, I am really going to try not to be snarky.  Boy, is it hard.  I call the film a Jon McNaughton painting come to life, and that's honestly the best way I can think of to describe it.  It's that same sensibility.  America is under attack. We're losing our freedoms.  We're rejecting Jesus, and we're rejecting the flag.  We need to fight back, or something.  It begins and ends with clips from speeches by Ronald Reagan from the early sixties, those hyper-patriotic things Reagan went around giving to pay the bills, back before he became governor of California.

Basically, it's a film about Bill O'Reilly's favorite fantasy, his "War on Christmas" (Bill O even makes a brief appearance).   Bob Revere (Marshall Teague) is part-time mayor of the small mountainous town of Columbus Peak (or Mount or something--didn't quite catch it).  He's also a pharmacist, and apparently also practices medicine.  He's the kind of guy who rides around on a Harley with an American flag fluttering behind him.  He wears a biker's jacket with patches: one reads Jesus Saves, the other, Satan Sucks.  Fourteen years earlier, his only son died in combat, probably in Iraq.  His grandson, Christian (Hunter Gomez) comes to live with him and his wife, Dottie (Jennifer O'Neill, remember her in Summer of '42?).  When Christian gets in trouble at school for having a Bible in his locker, Bob reprimands him, but is shamed when Christian asks what he's doing to preserve American freedoms.  So Bob decides to stand up for America by putting a Christmas tree in the city square.  He is opposed by Warren Hammerschmidt (Fred Williamson), who apparently represents the ACLU, or some similar unnamed organization.  Warren makes him take the tree down, so he responds by putting back up a cross they used to have on the side of the building housing the town's homeless mission--they had to take it down when they received federal funding.  Meanwhile, the town's high school kids are doing a 'winter play,' a thinly veiled Nativity play about space aliens instead of baby Jesus.  In the film's climactic moment, the kids rebel and do an actual Nativity, only with the addition of an American flag, and a video of Christian's Dad dying in Iraq.  Oh, and an older, biker Jesus (he has a halo), who looks a lot like Willie Nelson, gives the whole tree/cross/Nativity his thumbs up.

My favorite moment: when the town gathers around the jail, from where Bob has just been released, and sings "Silent Night," Warren goes up to the town's chief of police, and demands that 'these people' all be arrested.  Seriously, for singing "Silent Night" in public.  

It's not badly made.  The acting's all pretty good, at least if 'good acting' is defined as 'able to cry on command.'  It's not subtle, of course, with intrusive triumphant angel-chorus musical underscoring for all the big scenes.  I especially liked a young actress named Jenna Boyd, who plays Christian's Christian girlfriend, gave her some life and energy.

No, mostly the film just made me sad.  I am an American, and I think a patriotic one.  I am a Christian, life-long, of the Mormon variety.  I like to think that I get along well enough with my conservative friends.  And I have no objection to Christian conservatives making films.  In fact, I sort of get it.  I'm sure it gets tiresome, seeing films and TV shows in which conservative Christians are portrayed as crazy, vicious, deluded, fanatical.  I like Christian films.  Amazing Grace, case in point, a wonderful film about a committed Christian, William Wilberforce, and his battle against slavery. I get why this story would appeal to Christian audiences, to, among others, Mike Huckaby.  And Huckaby's an interesting guy, a guy I admire on some issues (he's a huge supporter of arts education, for example), and disagree with on other issues.  

But watching this film, I felt something akin to despair, honestly.  The world-view of its makers is so far removed from any kind of reality I recognize, I wonder how dialogue is even possible. It's a world that seems delusional.

In the world of this film, Christian kids can be suspended from school for having a Bible in their locker.  In the world of this film, Christmas itself is under attack, and you can't put up a Christmas tree in the town square. In the world of this film, a family puts up Christmas decorations, on their own house, defiantly, transgressively, as a political statement.  In the world of this film, secular humanism and the liberal media (there's also an evil news reporter), conspire together to take away American freedoms, specifically, I think, the freedom to celebrate Christmas.  In the world of this film, a secular high school can produce a thinly veiled space alien Nativity, with no complaint.

And who are the villains?  Well, there's one stereotypically gay character in the film, the high school drama teacher, director of the alien Christmas.  There are three black characters who have speaking lines.  One is Fred Williamson, the ACLU leader.  One is the sneaky town council member who conspires to get Our Hero fired as Mayor.  And one is the heroic high school custodian, who apparently also constructs the sets for the high school theatre program (?!?!?!?), and who locks out the Principal and drama teacher so the kids can do their subversively pro-Christian Christmas play.  The custodian is also a Vietnam veteran.

So one way to read this is: black people are heroic, as long as they know their place, working as janitors.  Put them in power, though, and they're corrupt America-Destroyers.  And this film comes out now, 2012, middle of a Presidential race.  With you-know-who running.

Look, I hate the 'conservatives are subtly racist' meme.  I really do.  I would resent the heck out of it if I were a conservative.  And there are some black conservatives.  But in the big confrontation scene between Bob and Warren, (in which Bob had all the good lines, and Warren seemed completely unable to defend his position), they kept cutting away to the faces of black audience members. See, this is a multi-racial city!  And the rest of the film?  Not so much.

To me, though, this film's biggest problem is that there's essentially no conflict.  There is no war on Christmas.  Thanksgiving through the end of December, Christmas is completely ubiquitous.  Kids can bring their Bibles to school, towns can put up Christmas trees, town homeless missions can have a cross on the side and get federal funding (Obama increased funding for Bush's faith-initiative), and, oh my heck, townspeople can sing "Silent Night" in public.  Ever heard of Christmas caroling?  To say folks can get arrested for any of it is all just a load of hooey. And one of the freedoms for which our soldiers fight, and sometimes die, is in fact the separation of Church and State.  They fight for our Constitution.  Which the American Civil Liberties Union is dedicated to preserving

As a Mormon kid, growing up in Indiana, where my version of Christianity was not mainstream, I know how awful and alienating school prayer can be.  I know what it feels like to be mocked and ridiculed because of my beliefs, to lose friends, especially when a government institution, like a public school, is on the side of the majority.  And I prayed my way from kindergarten straight through to a Ph.D., don't tell me you can't pray in school.  But institutional prayer that takes a majoritarian side really should be disallowed.  That's doesn't mean you can't sing 'Silent Night.'  Or that President Obama can't light a Christmas tree on the White House lawn. 

I don't even think soldiers in Iraq were fighting for American freedoms. I still don't have any idea why we fought that war.  Something about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, I suppose.  But the soldiers themselves did undoubtedly believe they were fighting for American freedom.  Can we honor their service and their sacrifice, while still arguing for the reasons why that specific war was unjustified?

Anyway, it's a disheartening movie.  I don't get it.  I don't know what the fuss is about.  This film is a skirmish that needn't be fought, in a war that shouldn't exist.  What on earth is going on?     

Monday, September 10, 2012

Diet Coke

I've worked in theatre my entire adult life, as an actor, a playwright, a stage director, a critic and as an actor.  I love it; always have.  My Dad's an opera singer, so I kinda grew up with it.  I love the smell of makeup, the sight of costume racks, floors littered with lighting gels.

And the taste of Diet Coke.

Theatre means late night rehearsals, maintaining maximum alertness even when--especially when--you're just dog tired.  You have to focus, though, you have to stay on top of things.  We all have our own coping mechanisms; for most of us, it means lots of Diet Coke.

But.  See.  I'm a Mormon, and Mormons don't drink Diet Coke.  And that was sort of strange, honestly, because it wasn't really official policy.  I seem vaguely to remember a directive in a Priesthood manual suggesting we might want to stay away from caffeinated beverages, and I also remember a talk by--gosh, I'm not sure, I want to say Vaughn J. Featherstone--saying something like 'well, if you have to be commanded in all things, doesn't that make you a slothful servant?  Isn't it better just to steer clear of caffeine without actually having it be a commandment?'  I probably should look all that up, but I'm honestly much much too lazy.  Still, it was understood.  Mormons who drank caffeinated beverages were. . .  doing something questionable.  Not quite sinful, but not entirely cool either. I remember taking a trip to California to meet The Girlfriend's Parents, and figured I'd ingratiate myself with her little brother by offering to take him with us to a baseball game--a Giants' game, obviously.  And the three of us were at the game, and I ordered a Diet Coke, and the little brother--now my wonderful brother-in-law--looked at me, horrified, and said to my then-girlfriend-now-wife, "but. . . . isn't he a Mormon?"

I was.  I was a Diet Coke drinking Mormon.  Which meant a not-very-good Mormon, in some peoples' minds.  It became a cultural marker, the difference between liberal Mormons and conservative Mormons.  We Mormon liberals watched R-rated movies and drank Diet Coke, and voted Democrat and generally weren't people who could entirely be trusted.

And I did 'em all.  The movies, the voting, the beverage choice.  Three for three.

Still do.  But the way I looked at it, there were reasonable exceptions to that non-rule rule about caffeine.  For one thing, there was caffeine in chocolate too.  We Mormons didn't drink coffee, but if it was because of the caffeine, hot chocolate had it too.  As did Hershey bars.  Plus, I was in theatre.  I didn't need that Diet Coke--it wasn't like I was addicted to the stuff--but it was. . .  helpful.  Late nights during tech week, it was more than helpful.  Plus theatre people are supposed to be kind of rebellious and unconventional and epater la bourgeoisie.  We were supposed to dress flamboyantly and swear a lot. 

Irrelevant aside: I love it when you go to the theatre, and massive technical difficulties occur.  My favorite was during the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when the Olympic flame lighting part failed.  There were these huge fire tube things, and they were supposed to move smoothly into place at the same time.  But one of them didn't work right.  I just kept imagining all those assistant stage managers on their headsets, and just how many F-bombs were being dropped out of earshot of the cameras.  I've been on headsets during shows when things went wrong, and I assure you, the F word expletive comes in handy.  You need to vent a bit, let that fly rail know exactly what you think of it.  Swearing helps.  End irrelevant aside.

I spent twenty years teaching and doing theatre at BYU, and you couldn't buy a Diet Coke at BYU.  Oh, you could get the wimpy non-caffeinated kind.  But why would you bother?  Not that this handicapped BYU Theatre people much.  There's always 7-11, always the Big Gulp. 

As faculty, I had an office, and I had a fridge in that office, and that fridge was always well stocked with the nectar of the Gods.  I was only living up to an old family tradition.  My grandmother also taught at BYU, and she also had a love of Diet Coke, and a fridge in her office.  She was partial to Coke in the glass bottles, which I admit is really the best way to drink the stuff. Some years ago, I went to Monroe Louisiana, and visited the Biedernharn Coca-Cola and Rare Bible Museum.  It's a museum celebrating Coca-Cola, rare Bibles, and the opera career of Emy-lou Biedenharn; it's as eccentric as it sounds.  And they had those old green bottles of frosty cold Diet Coke for sale for a nickel. Sat on a bench in these beautiful gardens and sipped a cold one.  It was a great day.

Anyway, my Grandmother loved Coke in bottles, and kept some in her fridge, and she'd give me one when I was a BYU freshman and stopped by her office.  Then some officious BYU administrator caught her and threw it all out.  So she printed up a bunch of labels, captioned 'Family Home Evening Homemade Root Beer' and pasted them on.  I come from a family of Coke rebels.

Except now.  The Church has now officially 'clarified' it's position.  Late August, the Church put on its website a statement declaring it 'does not prohibit the use of caffeine.'  A day later, they clarified the clarification, saying "the church revelation spelling out health practices ... does not mention the use of caffeine."  I'm not a rebel anymore.  I got nothing to rebel against.

I mean, BYU might even sell Diet Coke on campus.  It really is the End of Days.

Of course, the Church's clarification is entirely true.  The Word of Wisdom says 'strong drinks,' which we understand to mean booze, and 'hot drinks,' which we understand to mean coffee and tea.  I had a mission companion who took the 'hot drinks' part literally--he carried around a thermometer and would take the temperature of, like, soup.  Hotter than 98.6, and he wouldn't drink it. 

But now, to rebel, I'd have to drink coffee.  There's a family tradition there too--my wonderful Grandmother loved her tea, and she was a temple worker for thirty five years.  The bishop would ask her about Word of Wisdom, and she'd say, "well, I do drink my tea every morning.'' And he'd sigh and sign the form.  But I don't want to drink coffee.  Can't even stand the smell of it. 

I won't drink Diet Pepsi either.  Some people can't tell the difference.  I don't have much difficulty.  See Diet Coke tastes like ambrosia, the beverage of the Olympian Gods.  Diet Pepsi tastes like goat drool.  Not at all the same thing. 

So I'll stick with Diet Coke.  Not every day.  Just at rehearsals, and sometimes at restaurants, and watching baseball games.  And family dinners on Sundays.  And after particularly grueling doctors' appointments.  And sometimes, to celebrate. And just for fun.  I promise, I'm not addicted.  I can quit any time.  I have quit, in fact. Just cut out Diet Coke entirely.  Cold turkey.  I have.  Often. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One inning

A baseball season is a slog, a marathon.  162 games, from early April to the first of October, playing essentially every day, with the only occasional days off mostly consumed with travel.  In a novel-length narrative, themes emerge, characters are established and grow in significance, moments of comedy interrupting a fairly constant daily tension.  And yet, sometimes, a single game, even a single inning seems filled with significance.

The Dodgers and the Giants have been rivals since the first days of the twentieth century, when both vied for New York supremacy.  The Dodgers were Brooklyn, named for the habits of urchins who would sneak aboard streetcars, dodging fare-collectors; they played in Ebbetts Field.  The Giants were upper Manhattan--the Polo Grounds were a short ways from Central Park, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, prime uptown real estate.  In the 1890's, the team was led by four players, pitchers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, catcher Buck Ewing, and outfielder Roger Connors; all were above-average in height, leading their manager, Jim Mutrie, to refer to them as his 'giants.'  The nickname, unaccountably, stuck. 

The scrappy, hard-scrabble blue collar neighborhoods of Brooklyn vs. uptown Manhattan--it wasn't just a rivalry based on sports.  In '47, the Dodgers acquired another identity--civil rights pioneers, with the apotheosis of Jackie Robinson.  The Giants built theirs on another black superstar, Willie Mays.  When both teams moved to California, the rivalry took on a California tinge.  LA vs. San Francisco; it was still about a lot more than baseball.  There's a joke told about a Giants fan, a Padres fan and a Dodgers fan who go mountain climbing together.  The Padres fan shouts: 'this is for my team, the Padres!' and leaps off a cliff to his death.  The Giants fan shouts: 'this is for my team, the Giants!' and pitches the Dodger fan off.

In recent years, though, the Dodgers have fallen apart, due to the tasteless antics of their owner, Frank McCourt.  He named his wife Jamie 'team President' and paid her an exorbitant salary to not do anything; the happy couple then filed for divorce, and their all-too-public squabbling cast an unflattering spotlight on the uglier habits of at least their version of the One Percent.  Meanwhile, McCourt let the team and stadium deteriorate.  As a Giants' fan, the Frank and Jamie show couldn't have been more entertaining, but it was bad for baseball, and probably even bad for the rivalry--you want your rivals to fail, but not to become a national joke.

But McCourt finally did sell the team, and the ownership group he sold it to was fronted by none other than Magic Johnson. Magic is, of course, a Hall-of-Fame basketball player, but he's since become a very successful businessman.  And obviously, he knows sports. When I heard the news, I thought, 'dang, Magic.  They're gonna get really good, really fast.'  And so, last month, the Dodgers relieved the dysfunctional Boston Red Sox of four exceptionally talented, unachieving, preposterously overpaid players; traded 'em for prospects.

Last night, the Dodgers starting pitcher was Josh Beckett.  Beckett's pedigree includes pitching two teams to World Series wins: the Florida Marlins in 2003, and the Red Sox in 2007.  But last year, it was revealed that Beckett was a ring-leader of a group of disaffected Sox, who would disappear into the clubhouse during games, drinking beer and eating fried chicken.

His 2012 season has been pretty terrible, but he's still Josh Beckett, he's a great clutch pitcher, and I wasn't thrilled to see him in a Dodger uniform.  Last night, he was sharp, giving up just two runs over six innings, in a terrific pitcher's duel with Timmeh; the Giant's Lincecum, likewise trying to redeem a tarnished reputation.

September 7, then, in the middle of a pennant race, Giants in first place, Dodgers just behind in second.  2-2 game, seventh inning.  Beckett v. Lincecum.

Dodger's half, Mark Ellis, their second baseman, leads off with a soft infield single.  Lincecum facing Shane Victorino.  You know how it is; there are some guys who just rub you the wrong way.  Victorino is a very good player, played last year for the Phillies, and we Giants' fan just don't like him. He's cocky, obnoxious; we just don't like him.  When this year he was traded to the Dodgers, my favorite Giants' blogger, Grant Brisbane of The McCovey Chronicles called it 'the perfect match of bacteria and growth medium.'  Summed it up nicely.  Bearing down, Timmeh strikes him out.  Then Adrian Gonzalez, one of the Red Sox refugees, draws a walk--Timmeh's control was awful the whole game.  First and second, one out, seventh inning. Lincecum was up to 120 pitches, and Bruce Bochy reluctantly made the move--Santiago Casilla in.  Casilla was once the team's best relief pitcher--an injury set him back, but he still throws smoke.  Strikeout, easy grounder; out of the inning.

Now came the bottom of the second, and the bottom of the order, our seventh, eighth, and ninth hitters.  Most of the time, that's not a recipe for a big inning.  Last year, backup catcher was a position of weakness for the Giants, a weakness exposed when Buster Posey, our star, blew out his ankle.  This spring, a rotund young rookie, Hector Sanchez, showed up and started spraying line drives everywhere.  Giants' management went from saying 'he's impressive, but nowhere near ready for the major leagues,' to 'well, he's certainly showing us something,' to telling him he'd made the team. And he's kept hitting. Lincecum likes throwing to him, so he starts when Timmeh does, with Posey playing first.  So now, Hector leads off the seventh with a single.

Next up, Brandon Crawford.  For the last two years, shortstop has been a black hole, with a series of veteran players adding very little offense to sub-par defense.  Meanwhile, Crawford kept creeping his way up the minor league ladder.  I always thought he'd be good.  He was a very good college player, but the kind of guy who always seemed to need a little time to adjust to each new level.  When the Giants announced he'd be the starting shortstop this year, a lot of fans shuddered at the thought.  And he started the season not hitting much, and making a lot of errors.  But he's settled down, been brilliant defensively: see for example, this.  And he's just gotten better and better all season long. Now, with the game on the line, he lays off three borderline pitches, and draws a walk.  

Next up, Manny Burriss.  Emmanuel Burriss is from Washington, D.C., the only player in the majors from our nation's capital.  He was the starting second baseman at the beginning of the season, and he's fast and a good fielder, but he never did hit, and lost his job.  But he's a very good bunter, and proves it now, in the seventh, pinch-hitting for Casilla and laying down a perfect sacrifice.  Beckett then walks Angel Pagan intentionally, to set up the double play.  And Marco Scutaro comes up to the plate.

Scoots is a veteran player, came up with Oakland, and is one of those solid good guys who just does everything the way it's supposed to be done.  I love the guy, just so sound, so smart.  He started the season with the Colorado Rockies, an awful team this year.  It broke your heart, watching this consummate professional with a team so young and inept.  In July, we liberated him in exchange for Charlie Culberson, a minor league second baseman with some potential.  Good trade for both teams--we get a pro, and they get a guy who has a chance to be pretty good down the line.  So now, bases loaded, one out, Marco Scutaro comes to the plate.

It was a perfectly ordinary at bat, and yet also a great one.  First pitch, Beckett starts him with a fastball just off the plate outside.  A younger player, over-eager, would probably swing; Scoots takes, ball one.  A curve next, again just off the plate; another ball.  Another curve, and Scoots watches it cross the plate for strike one.  Then a fastball on the outside corner.

Thing is, it was a good pitch.  Josh Beckett's a good pitcher, and he threw a ninety two mile an hour fastball, right on the corner, in the strike zone.  If Scutaro had tried to pull the ball, he would have turned it over, grounder to shortstop for the double-play.  But instead, he just went with the pitch, lofted a little ducksnort blooper over the second baseman's head.  No possible way anyone could have caught it; two runs score, Crawford safe on a close play at the plate for the second run.

Ball game.  The Giants' bullpen struggled a bit in the 8th, but Sergio Romo threw his frisbee slider and retired the side, and we got another run in the 8th to put it away.

First game of the three game set to the Giants; nationally televised games to come on Saturday and Sunday.  We're five games up, with three weeks to play.  A turning point game?  No. But a tense and tough one.  September baseball, man.  I haven't slept, I don't think, since mid-August.    

Friday, September 7, 2012

F, S, nudity, and the past (and present) of cable

So, the conventions are over--well done, empty chair!--and although the baseball pennant races are scorching hot, I still don't get, and have to rely on what ESPN and Fox deign to broadcast.  Which, this weekend, is Giants/Dodgers.  Can't wait for that: meanwhile fall movies always stink, and the fall TV season hasn't started yet. 

And that means, what?  It used to be, when I was young and callow, there were three main networks: channel 6, channel 8, and channel 13, plus also channel 4, where I got to watch The Popeye and Janie Show every day when I got home from school.  Channel 4 was my favorite, because Popeye and Janie was followed by Cowboy Bob, plus they showed Indiana basketball, and on weekends, showed Sammy Terry.  Ah, the halcyon days of youth, when TVs only had four channels and you had to change them by turning a knob!  ABC?  NBC? I didn't know about any of that stuff.  What I knew was channels. I didn't know Channel 4 was WTTV, for example, a local unaffiliated station. 

Popeye and Janie showed Hanna-Barbera cartoons, introduced by Janie, who was sweet and kind and did lame comedy bits in-between cartoons.  Sammy Terry was the host of a late night horror movie show, which my Mom wouldn't let me watch, which meant I could only watch it when we got a particularly gullible babysitter.  Cowboy Bob was Janie's co-host, then got his own show.  My gosh, those shows were probably awful, but I remember them with great fondness.  Four channels, and you also knew what channels your favorite shows were on.  Monday nights, for example, Mr. Terrific came on channel 6, and then, when it was over, you switched to channel 8 and watched Captain Nice.  Mr. Terrific was a superhero who, like Superman, could fly, but he had to flap his arms really fast to achieve liftoff.  His super powers came from a pill he took, which wore off after an hour, usually just as he was about to catch the bad guy.  Captain Nice could fly too, but didn't like to--he was afraid of heights; he was also weirdly attached to his Mother, who hand-sewed his costume. I tried to get my Mom to buy me Captain Nice pajamas, but she couldn't find them.  Captain Nice was played by William Daniels, who later became Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere.  I would pay very large sums of money for DVDs of Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice, though I'm sure they were both incredibly lame.  I loved them inordinately when I was eleven. Broke my heart when they both got canceled the same year.  1967--I blame Lyndon Johnson. 

Then a friend of mine got cable--well, his family did--and suddenly he got more channels than 4.  That was really weird.

Now it works like this: the Big Three networks, NBC, CBS and ABC, now number four, Fox having crashed the party.  Fox does singing-contest shows, really dirty sitcoms, and sports--they're really good at football.  NBC does singing-contest shows, pretty funny sitcoms, and police procedurals.  CBS does sitcoms and police procedurals (especially the CSI, NCIS variety where the cops use science to capture the bad guys).  ABC does dancing-contest shows, plus Castle. Nobody on any network shows can say the F or S words, unless it's by a football player who just won the Super Bowl or something. 

USA and TNT have hour long dramas in which the actors can say the S word, but not the F word.  The shows are all pretty good; not Mad Men or Breaking Bad good, not mind-blowingly innovative, but solidly entertaining. Actresses on these shows wear short skirts and high heels, even if they're cops, and get involved in sexy situations, but there's never quite any nudity.  Burn Notice, for example, clearly has a second AD whose job it is to go around Miami getting bikini footage.  My wife and I have set the over/under on Burn Notice bikinis at 14. Per episode.

AMC shows hour long dramas that do, actually, reinvent TV as an artistic medium, like Breaking Bad and Mad Men.  They win every Emmy, every year.  When they're not doing that, they're showing old movies. They can say the S word, not the F word, and also don't allow nudity.  

The History Channel used to star Hitler; now they're more about the paranormal.  Sci-Fi channel unaccountably is now SyFy, and shows Warehouse 13

ESPN shows SportsCenter 28 times a day, as mandated by federal law.  They're also fond of shows in which retired jocks talk about sports a lot.  They also show auto racing and poker, neither of which is actually a sport.

HBO and Showtime also have new shows, in addition to the old movies that are their staple.  On their new series, they say the F word many times per episode, the S word almost as often, and every actress on their shows can count on four nude scenes per episode.  For all that, their shows are often really good, if you get them on Netflix so you can fast-forward the naughty bits.

There are also many many other channels.  Some of them show people selling things on TV.  Some show preachers talking about Jesus, unless they feature Joel Osteen, in which case they show a preacher talking about how Jesus wants you to have more money, which you apparently can achieve by sending Joel Osteen money.  Some of them are in Spanish.  GSN shows old game shows--worth watching for the awful hair styles.

VH-1 occasionally shows music videos, but mostly is about reality TV shows in which incredibly self-absorbed people act annoyingly.  MTV is entirely about reality TV shows in which ditto.  Neither network is really worth watching at all, ever.

Plus there are like twenty sports stations, showing football games between, like, Appalachian State and Georgia Valdosta.  Never ever worth watching, unless BYU football shows up there somehow.  BYU football is on every week during the season, but never on the same channel twice--you have to be vigilant.

We have so many options these days.  So many many options.

I miss Popeye and Janie.   


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Defending Obama

Okay, once more into the breech.  When I started this blog, my intention was for it to celebrate eclecticism; it's a blog about pop culture, and Mormonism and politics and baseball and . . . .  This is primarily because I just have that kind of 'messy attic' mind.  I store basically everything up there: don't mind the dust.

I never thought I would post twice in a row on any subject, let alone politics.  I mean, I like politics, I'm interested in politics, but more than movies?  More than baseball?  Come on.  Especially with scorching hot pennant races in every division.  

But the conventions are going, so there's nothing on TV.  And my wife is home recovering from surgery, with me doing my inadequate best to care for her, so haven't been to the movies for awhile.  And, you know, this is the most important election of our lifetimes.

At least Chuck Norris seems to think so.

I really don't want to be snarky about Chuck Norris, either.  For one thing, even at the age of 72, he could still kick my ass.  But he's a good guy, a fellow Christian, and he clearly thinks the Ant-Christ is about to be named the Democratic nominee for President.  "Socialism. . . . or worse."  Cue the soundtrack to The Omen.

So let me defend Barack Hussein Obama's first term as 44th President of the United States.  And the basic Republican argument against him is, in Bill Clinton's memorable paraphrase, "we handed you a horrendous mess, and in four years, you still haven't cleaned it totally up, so put us back in power."

A sixteen trillion dollar national debt, eleven trillion of it on Obama's watch: that's the argument.  So let's look at the debt.  Where did it come from?  Here's what caused it.

And here we go again, blaming Bush for everything.  But what's important to recognize is that the Bush legacy consisted entirely of continuing commitments.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were hardly something we could just walk away from.  We had to wind them down, transition to civilian rule.  It wasn't easy and more importantly, it wasn't cheap.  The Medicare expansion was actually a good thing, completely necessary.  (All except for the 'not paying for it' part; that was a uniquely Bush innovation.)

Now, I don't think the war in Iraq needed to be fought.  But I'll concede that reasonable people disagree there.  The one completely foolish, absolutely unjustified bit of spending on that chart, the Bush tax cuts, were the one continuing commitment that could have been abandoned.  The Bush tax cuts remain the single most idiotic public policy decision of my lifetime.  They accomplished exactly nothing, except to expand the deficit and give rich guys more money.  They had no stimulative value whatever.  But I can see the reluctance to raise taxes mid-recession.  Plus there was no way Obama could have gotten ending the Bush tax cuts through Congress.  So we were stuck with that one too. (Maybe they go away in December.  We can hope). 

Okay, so there's all this deficit spending going on, all of it in continuing commitments, and the economy was in free-fall.  Tax revenues way down, making deficits worse.  What exactly should the President have done?

Well, eight days into his Presidency, Mitt Romney was already declaring Obama's policies a 'failure' on national TV.  So what exactly was he doing that was so terrible?

Not cutting spending.  Not imposing austerity.  Providing a stimulus.  Not following Great Britain, a big nation with a big economy that was facing exactly the same problems America was, with pretty much exactly the same causes.  That has to be it, that has to be what Republicans mean by 'failed policies.'  Obama didn't follow the David Cameron path.

And boy did we dodge a bullet there.

Because there's just not an argument to be made for austerity anymore.  It just flat doesn't work.  I mean, look who's tried it?  France, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Ireland.  It hasn't worked anywhere.  Double-digit unemployment everywhere.

Oh, yeah, he also instituted Obamacare.  So let me ask this question: it's two o'clock in the morning.  You're a Mom or a Dad, in a family too poor to afford health insurance, one of the 30 million Americans in that boat, and your kid is really seriously sick.  At that point, you have exactly two choices, both of them hopelessly irresponsible.  You can take your child to the hospital emergency room and rack up a bill you have no possible way of paying, knowing your next months are going to be a nightmare of dodging calls from bill collectors.  Or you can let a potentially serious illness go untreated.  Maybe the kid has meningitis.  Maybe she has strep. Maybe something worse. 

So, okay, you hate Obamacare.  What's your solution? Uninsured Americans right now face a completely untenable double-blind, one that also has serious health cost implications for the rest of us.  The US pays twice what other nations pay for health care, with worse outcomes than almost any other industrialized nation.  Every one of our last nine Presidents has attempted some kind of health care reform.

Obama got it done.

And with apologies to Chuck Norris, this is not the apocalypse.  President Obama is not a socialist, he's not a communist, he's not a terrorist, he's not muslim (not that it wouldn't be perfectly fine if he was muslim, it's a major world religion and a peaceful and wonderful one).  He's not (apologies to Dinesh D'Souza), an anti-colonialist, except in the sense that basically everyone nowadays is anti-colonialist.  (I don't see anyone in either party suggesting that what the US needs is more colonies.)  He's a pro-business moderate, who has cut tax rates to their lowest level in years, whose Presidency has seen the highest corporate profits of my lifetime. Not that that's necessarily a good thing.

I personally don't think he got enough in his negotiations with AIG and Goldman Sachs et. al.  We saved their fannies; they should have agreed to cut bonuses and CEO compensation packages and agreed to much stricter regulations.  And I fault Obama for not insisting on a much stronger version of what became the Dodd-Frank bill.  The specific excesses that made up the world-wide financial crisis are still not illegal.  And they should be.    

Personally, Obama's a Christian--he and Michelle and the girls attend the Episcopal Church close to the White House, though the President isn't always able to make it.  His wife is wonderful, and his girls are adorable--he's a good father and husband.  He's a reasonable guy, thoughtful and smart, and he's also pretty cool--gets pop culture references, chats on Reddit. He likes basketball, and he loves to read.  He's not perfect, but he's hardly Satan. 

And yes, he was, in fact, born in Hawaii.

President Obama's policies will, if enacted, lead to a continued, somewhat slow recovery. I think we could do better, but I don't think he can get a huge Paul Krugman stimulus through Congress.  But in ten years, Americans will be astonished think that Obamacare was ever controversial.  He's been a pretty good guy, and a pretty good President.  This is not the End of Days. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Economics and economists: part trois

So who can we trust?

Which economists, what economic models, which schools of thought within economics?  Isn't economics, after all, just a bunch of math-obsessed eggheads arguing over stuff, using big words most of us can't understand?  Doesn't economics have the same predictive accuracy as what those chirpy TV weather people offer?  How many internet arguments conclude with some arrogant jerk pompously intoning, in tones of fatuous certainty, 'well, if you understand basic economics. . . "  Like, say, I've been doing for two days now?

I take it as given that there's no such thing as objective analysis.  The academic discipline of economics tends to call itself a 'science,' but to suggest that there's not a political or ideological component to the ideas of any economist is silly.  Economists do collect and analyze data, and they do make predictions based on that data, but no one has a perfect track record. (Although some guys, as I'll show, come pretty close).  They all make mistakes.  And they disagree with each other, pretty ferociously at times.   In the current political environment, both sides have presented their 'economic plans' (which tend to be pretty platitudinous and vague), and both sides claim that 'leading economists' agree with even their rosiest predictions.  And most citizens don't have time to read tons of economic theory, don't have time to check the math.  Folks got lives. 

So people vote their gut. People distrust any statement by any economist.  People care a lot more about family members who are out of work.  And ideology becomes a convenient shortcut.  'I'm a conservative,' so I support conservatives, and I believe conservative economists.  'I'm a liberal', and so I support liberals, and believe in pronouncements by liberal economists.

I get all that. I do it too.  But doesn't intellectual honesty require that we do pay attention to data, that we do, at times, change our minds based on facts and evidence?  As a liberal, I tend to think government-provided welfare is a good thing.  I tend to dismiss arguments about welfare dependency.  I tend to think that dependency doesn't actually happen much, and that it's not generational.  I no longer think that.  I've seen enough evidence to consider welfare dependency quite damaging, and to think that we need to re-think welfare programs.  I do think we have to use our resources as the richest nation in the history of the world to provide for the less fortunate.  I do think we need to be smarter about it, though. 

Okay, so, a year or so ago, I decided to write a play about two economists, in fact about two guys famous for disagreeing with each other.  Nobel laureates both.  John Maynard Keynes, the Cambridge economist, and Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian. Keynes' great book was The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.  It's essentially the book that created the field of macroeconomics, and is considered one of the most influential and important books ever written in the field.  It's also a chore to read, I gotta tell ya, sparkling prose interrupted by lots and lots and lots of math.  And I suck at math.  Hayek's great book is The Road to Serfdom: it's one of the most important books in the history of libertarian economics.  It's also a lot easier to read; it's actually dazzling, terrifying, brilliant.  And while I was at it, I also read everything else I could find by those two guys. 

A friend also suggested that I read Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, and boy am I glad I did.  It's probably the best book ever on the history of economics.  That kinda grounded me, and encouraged me to read several other guys.  Read me some Malthus, some Adam Smith, some Ricardo and Veblen.  And now our economy is in the tank, and I've read probably twenty books about the financial crisis and what caused it.  Fascinating stuff. 

And we're in a mess, and we need to claw our way out of it.  To which end, for years now, I've been reading Paul Krugman.  His latest book is End This Depression Now.  Which, I promise you, you need to read.  Liberal or conservative or libertarian: read it.  It's not a tough read, and it's a big best-seller.  And you may disagree with it.  But read it.  It's a book worth taking seriously. 

So here's what I think we should look for in an economist.  First, is this person respected in the larger profession?  Has the economist won the Nobel Prize in economics?  Or a Sloan Fellowship?  Or some other prestigious prize in the field?  (Paul Krugman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2008.)  Second, is this person an expert in the specific economic area we're concerned about.  In the case of the US economy, that means a macroeconomist, not a microeconomist.  (In other words, a big picture, national economy guy, not a small picture, everyday market efficiencies guy, like the Freakonomics guy, Steven Levitt.) Paul Krugman is a macroeconomist, with a specialty in international trade.

I would also say this: how practical are this economist's theories?  I remember reading a Heritage Foundation plan to fix problem of American health care.  First item on this proposal: get rid of the AMA.  I don't know whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing to get rid of the American Medical Association---I suspect it would be a very bad thing indeed.  But since that's never happening, that's not a realistic proposal.  Same thing with economists who say things like "we should go back to the gold standard," or " we should get rid of the Federal Reserve."  I don't know what the effects of those decisions would be--I think pretty bad.  But since neither is ever going to happen, why talk about it?  

On the other hand, we do want an economist who is maybe a little counter-intuitive, someone whose ideas aren't part of the mainstream discourse.  To the extent that there is a mainstream consensus (right now, that deficit reduction should be our biggest priority), we should look for someone who challenges it.  After all, the status quo ain't great, right?  But here's the big question: what's the economist's track record?  What predictions has s/he made and how have they panned out?  How accurate has s/he been? 

The reason I trust Paul Krugman, the reason I think every policy maker in the country should read his new book and implement the policies he recommends, the reason I think he's the most important economist working right now, is not because he's a liberal and I like liberals, but because his track record is amazing.  He's been right over and over again.  As he says himself, it's not because he's personally brilliant.  It's because the models he uses (largely based on Keynes, who also had a freaky habit of being right all the time), are good ones.  They work. 

Examples: when the Obama administration proposed their stimulus, Krugman said it would stop the bleeding, it would save some jobs, but it was too small to make a real difference.  He predicted an unemployment rate of around 9% post-stimulus.  He nailed it within a few decimal places. When Standard and Poor's reduced the US credit rating, there was tremendous consternation, both in the White House and on the Right. Krugman said it would have no effect whatsoever.  It hasn't.  When the Cameron administration (in Great Britain) proposed their austerity measures, Krugman said they were condemning their country to double-figure unemployment--their economy has been even worse than Krugman predicted.  I could add example after example: I can't one where he was wrong.

So when a recent Nobel laureate in economics, with a track record of being right pretty much without exception, who most mainstream academic economists all quote and track and read and listen to, says we can fix our economy in eighteen months without doing long-term damage or anything, I think we should try it. 

And President Obama, finally, seems to be listening.  His jobs bill (stalled in the House) is a huge step in the right direction.  It's too small, but it will help, and if it were to pass, it would do so measurably, leading to further steps in the right direction. 

The other possibility, of course, is that Romney wins, rips off the mask, and comes out as a closeted-Keynesian.  But I'm not counting on that.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The economy: part deux

So how do we fix it?

First and foremost, we need to focus on what matters: jobs.  And right now, the focus, both left and right, is primarily on deficit reduction.  You actually hear people say from time to time things like "we need to cut spending and reduce the deficit so we can increase the number of jobs in our country."  That's like saying "we need to eat more waffles, so we can rotate the tires on our cars."  It's like saying "we need to stop watering our lawns, so we can spay and neuter our pets."  It's like saying (I can do this forever) "we need to ride our bicycles, so we don't get wet when it rains."  Deficit reduction is a good thing, but it has nothing whatever to do with job growth.  Nothing whatever.

In fact, there's no evidence at all suggesting that high deficits are currently harming our economy, not in any way.  If deficits were harming our economy, we'd see it in inflation and in rising interest rates.  Anyone out there try to buy a car lately?  I don't know that I've ever seen interest rates this low.  The deficit could become a problem, at some undefinable point in the future.  It isn't doing harm right now. 

(At this point, I suppose it's also worth pointing out that the Romney/Ryan proposed tax cuts are not balanced by their proposed spending cuts, and that their plans will, by the best non-partisan economic analysis available, increase the deficit from about 1 trillion dollars a year to about 3 trillion. So even if the deficit were a serious problem right now, the Romney/Ryan plans will make it considerably worse.  Just sayin'.)  

No, what's needed is more stimulus.  What's needed is more money pumped into the economy. More money circulating, more money spent by consumers, more demand.  More demand equals businesses expanding, new business start-ups.  We're in a liquidity trap caused by a demand-side recession.  Liquidity traps can last for years; they don't just solve themselves.  (Ask Japan; their demand-side recession lasted twelve years.)  Government spending cuts pull money out of the economy.  We need more money in the economy.

We can see it right now.  The single biggest factor holding back our current recovery is public sector layoffs. The private sector has been creating jobs--not as many as we'd like, but job growth has been fairly strong.  But private sector job growth has been counter-balanced by layoffs by state and local governments.  Teachers, firefighters and cops. And that has all sorts of other negative implications, like an education system where class sizes have never been higher, preventing good teachers from being effective.  

So what we need is not cuts in federal spending.  What we need to do is to spend more, not less.  The federal government can stimulate through paying for infrastructure improvements (always a good idea anyway).  The federal government can give money to states and municipalities that are hurting, allowing them to re-hire cops, firemen and teachers.  I think mortgage debt relief and student loan debt relief would also prove stimulative.

Where is that money going to come from?  Well, we'd borrow it.  And it's not true that we're mostly borrowing money from China.  Most of our debt is held domestically, by Americans.  The federal government can, under these present conditions, borrow money at essentially zero percent interest; that's how favorable the rates are.   
I know this is all counter-intuitive. Debt is bad. Families can't survive if they spend that much more than they bring in.  I happen to live with a deficit hawk; my wife manages our personal finances with steely-eyed vigilance; if we need to make a purchase, we can and do pay cash.  (In fact, we're not spending very much, which makes us part of the problem!)  But the federal government is not a family. 

Federal debt is not a bad thing.  Deficit spending is what defeated Hitler.  Deficit spending is what created the federal highway system.  Deficit spending is what created the infrastructure that created the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, with the strongest middle class, and the greatest possibilities for rags-to-riches success stories that the world has ever seen. 

But aren't we piling debt on our grandchildren's shoulders?  Is it sustainable, won't we have to balance the books eventually?  Sure.  But I'm less worried about my grandchildren than I am with my children, with the current generation of college graduates who can't find jobs, who did everything right, got into good schools, worked hard, got good grades, and still have to live at home with their parents in a kind of suspended half-way house to prosperity.  I'm worried about families right now who lost their jobs and are over-qualified for the only jobs available.  I'm worried about unemployment and underemployment right now.  I'm not saying 'the future will take care of itself.'  But full employment will increase the tax base, and deficits will fall.

Keynes said (I'm paraphrasing) the time for austerity is during a boom, the time for spending is during a bust.  Counter-intuitive or not, we need more stimulus.  We need to stop this focus on deficit reduction and focus instead on jobs, on the middle-class, on making it possible for our kids to live the American dream.  That's what both parties are saying right now; those are the rhetorical themes that dominated the Republican convention and that will dominate the Democratic convention.  But their plans have to match their rhetoric.

There's also a lot of talk in both conventions about 'bold leadership' and 'new ideas' and 'making the tough choices.'  Let's start by questioning all the current conventional wisdom.  Mainstream analysis in the media says 'it's time for more spending cuts.'  'It's time for austerity, time to tighten our belts.'  Most mainstream commentary agrees that the deficit is the big issue we need to address right now.  Most economists disagree.  In my next blog, tomorrow, I'll talk about those economists, the ones who have a track record that suggests we should listen to them. In the meantime, at least keep an open mind.  We need jobs.  That needs to be the priority.  Not deficit reduction. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Post Clint: Republican Economics

I resolutely refused to watch any of the Republican National Convention this past week, and won't watch the Democrats this week.  As I've said before: I don't watch infomercials.  I nearly missed the highlight of the convention, Clint Eastwood's absurdist improv dialogue with an empty chair. Jon Stewart's response to Clint was both very funny and oddly insightful: "there's a President Obama only Republicans can see."  Hilarity aside, the Republicans are trying to combat the impression that they are primarily a party of angry wealthy clue-less old white men, so they feature, during their one hour of prime-time coverage, an octogenarian yelling at a chair?  I don't get it.

I did read the main speeches on-line: Ryan's, Rubio's, Ann and Mitt Romney's.  And they said all the right things, about the middle-class and job creation and rebuilding the economy.  My son and I set the plus/minus for use of the phrase "the failed policies of the Obama administration" at 60: if you'd bet the plus, you'd have cleaned up.  So these two questions suggest themselves: what policies exactly have failed, and what do you propose to do differently?

Let me quickly throw in my two cents: I think the Obama administration doesn't really know exactly and specifically how to get the economy rolling again.  His economic team has some ideas, but they're unfocused, contradictory.  When the President says, "I have a plan," I don't know that he really has one.  His economic team tends to lurch from idea to idea, from Keynesian stimulus to cost-cutting austerity, and back again. His singular achievement, Obamacare, was compromise legislation, and is flawed.  I support it, not because it's perfect, but because it's SO much better than the status quo.  Obama doesn't have the gusto, the charismatic confidence of FDR, but his Presidency does remind me a bit of Roosevelt's restless willingness to try anything.  FDR was advised by Keynes himself, and ought to have followed Keynes' advice more closely, just as Obama would be better off if he'd listened more to Paul Krugman.  Obama's been muddling through, but he did save the auto industry and he did save 3.5 million jobs with the stimulus package (according to the painfully non-partisan CBO).  It's a mixed record, but over-all, some progress has been achieved.  And it was never realistic to think he could fix things in four years.  After all, Great Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Ireland et. al, faced the same difficulties, and, if anything, are doing worse than we are.

I think the Republicans, on the other hand, think they know exactly how to fix things, exactly how to get the economy rolling.  I think they're brimming with confidence.  I think they think they've got a genuinely brilliant economic thinker in Paul Ryan, a serious policy wonk, and I think they're completely on-board with his ideas.  I don't sense any self-doubt at all.  I'm sure Ryan is a die-hard conservative ideologue, a man with a plan and a self-appointed mission. I hadn't thought that described Romney . . .  but he did put Ryan on the ticket. 

And they're completely, totally, 100% wrong about all of it.

Their proposals are on-line, and actually fairly specific.  Romney is on record as proposing to cut marginal tax rates to 28%.  Ryan's plan cuts them to 25%.  Presumably, they'd split the difference somehow when it came time to actually pass legislation.  This is a massive tax cut, targeted towards the wealthy, and would add billions (the figure I've heard is 4.2 trillion) to the deficit over ten years. The cuts would be partially off-set by cuts in social spending, cutting such programs as food stamps, Pell grants, Aid to Dependent Children, school lunch programs, Meals on Wheels; essentially eroding the social safety net. 

This plays into a standard Democratic meme; Republicans as heartless plutocrats, callously enriching the rich on the backs of the starving poor.  Democrats like to see themselves as uniquely virtuous and caring--I don't think that's true.  I think Republicans genuinely do believe that tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, helping the middle class and providing opportunities for upward mobility.  I think Republicans genuinely do believe that welfare dependency is a real danger, that generational poverty is bad for everyone, not least bad for the poor themselves.  I really do think Romney and Ryan think these tax cuts and spending cuts will pay for themselves in time, and lead to greater prosperity for all.

They're just wrong about all of it.

Conservatives famously dismiss Keynesian economics, and dismiss stimulus programs like the one Obama implemented.  But Keynes did believe that, under some circumstances, tax cuts could prove stimulative.  When inflation was high, and interest rates were high, tax cuts for rich people could free up much needed investment capital, stimulating economic growth.  This is what happened in 1980.  That's why Reagan's tax cuts had stimulative value.  Those were the conditions that existed then.  But that's not what's going on right now.  Right now, investment capital has never been more plentiful--interest rates could really hardly be lower.  Right now, we're caught in a liquidity trap caused by a demand side recession.  What's needed is more stimulus.  And Obama tried a stimulus, and it did work, some.  It was just too small to repair all the damage wrought by the financial crisis.

But we can know, for an absolute certainty, that the Romney/Ryan plans won't work.  Spending cuts, these kinds of austerity measures have been tried.  Most of Europe suffers under the same conditions we're facing; something akin to the Ryan plan has been tried.  To say it won't work isn't just theory.  We're actually in a position to look around and see other countries--Great Britain, France, Ireland--with the same problems we have, with the same causes, and see what they're trying and what's working for them.  We can KNOW, with something approaching absolute certainty, what doesn't work.

So in this election, we have a choice, between uncertainty shading towards truth, and certainty in the service of untruth.  I'm not certain Obama knows how to fix things.  I am certain that Romney thinks he can.  But he's wrong, and Obama is closer to right. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Stories within stories within . . .

My wife has been home this week, recovering from surgery, and we decided, since we had some time on our hands, to watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, the extended versions of all three movies.  Thirteen hours, or whatever, journeying through Middle Earth.  The movies proved to be every bit as magnificent as I remember them being, and by the end, we felt as wrung out as if we'd actually been with Frodo and Sam, climbing to the fiery pits of Mount Doom. 

One thing that really struck me watching the movies this time through were the little stories, the minor stories, the nameless characters and unheralded actors that helped round out the story, that gave it substance and variety.  I mean, obviously Lord of the Rings is about Frodo and Sam, about Gandalf and Saruman, about Aragorn and Boromir and Theoden, king of Rohan.  In a class I used to teach about dramatic structure, I used to say that the trilogy was built on three basically tragic stories.  Fellowship of the Ring is the tragedy of Boromir, The Two Towers is the tragedy of Smeagol/Gollum and Return of the King is the tragedy of . . . Frodo.  But that way of looking at the film leaves out Aragorn, perhaps the most powerful and compelling character of the entire series. 

But this time through, I kept noticing tiny stories, little stories that Peter Jackson weaves in the fabric of the entire trilogy.  For example:

The barmaid of the Shire:  In Fellowship, we get just a hint of Sam's unrequited longing for a girl we only see briefly, slinging ale in a Shire tavern.  Her name, apparently, is Rosie Cotton, and the actress who plays her is Sarah McLeod.  Sam dances with her at Bilbo's farewell party, after mooning after her like a love-sick calf.  I think we see him briefly remember her in The Two Towers, but at the end of Return, Sam musters his courage and boldly goes over to her in the tavern, and next we see, they're getting married.  And at the end of Return, she and Sam can be seen outside their home, with two small children in tow, and we're thrilled; brave, loyal, heroic Sam has achieved a happiness Frodo will forever be denied.  But it works because Sarah McLeod makes the most of her tiny part; she's a cheerfully beckoning presence in the film, in Sam's life. 

The Rohan woman and her two children:  In Two Towers, we see a village of Rohan, beside a creek, about to be attacked by Saruman's Orcish army.  A woman puts her two children, an older boy and a little girl, on a horse and tells them to spread the word, promising to meet up with them later at Helm's Deep. I can't find the older actress' name on IMDB, but she's tremendous in the part, fierce and strong.  We think she can't possibly have survived the Orc attack, but later we see her and she did survive it, and is reunited with her children.  She then waits with the other women and children in the cave beneath Helm's Deep, while the older child, her son, joins Aragorn as a fighter.  He and Aragorn have a brief scene together, in which he admits he's afraid, and Aragorn tells him he has a good sword.  That's it, that's all we see of this family, but we assume the boy survives the battle, and that this small family is saved because of the heroism of the Helm's Deep defenders.  Strictly speaking, we probably don't need that story line, but it gives a moving, human face to the victims of Saruman's treachery. 

Gamling's heroism:  Gamling is not a character you probably remember from the books and movies, but this image, you might remember.  We first meet Gamling at Theoden's castle at Rohan.  Gamling is basically the captain of the guard, taking orders from Grima Wormtongue, but clearly not thrilled about it.  When Gandalf frees Theoden from Saruman's spell (his face morphing from 'senile ancient geezer' to 'powerful middle-aged king' in one of the coolest effects ever), Gamling's in the background, restrained from interfering by Legolas.  Gamling gets a tiny scene with Theoden right before the Helm's Deep battle, in which he admits to being scared.  But he's still alive and fighting alongside Aragorn in the final battle in Return.  Bruce Hopkins, the actor who plays him, does a wonderful job giving this tiny part a real story arc, from a guy who is basically there to take orders, even if it means serving a loathsome rat like Grima, to a frightened-but-game soldier, to a battle-scarred, heroic soldier. 

The Orc Richard III.  As the Orc forces gather outside Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor, this one deformed looking chap, Gothmog, leads them into battle.  I love the way he moves: with one arm and leg crippled, he's the very image of Richard III. At one point, a Minas Tirith trebuchet launches a big rock at him; he glares at it contemptuously as it hurtles towards him, then steps aside at just the last instant.  He later gets in a fight with Merry and Eowyn, nearly kills them both, but is beheaded at the last second by Aragorn.  Basically, all by himself, Gothmog gives the Orcs some character, some individualization.  The actor who plays him, Lawrence Makoare, plays an earlier part in the trilogy, in which he is likewise beheaded by Aragorn.  He's Lurtz, the muscle-bound archer leader of the Uruk-hai in Fellowship; the scary-looking dude who kills Boromir.  Makoare plays a third character as well, the Nazgul king who Eowyn kills so memorably in Return.  It's difficult to imagine Lord of the Rings being as rich and powerful as it is without this fine actor, who brings such a menacing physical presence to his three roles. 

I don't know that there's much of a lesson for writers with these subplots.  Most of us don't write thirteen-hour long movie trilogies.  The lesson, if there is one, is that details matter.  Small stories can be as powerful and important as bigger ones.

Also this: there's no such thing as an unimportant part in a play or film.  And actors in smaller roles still get to enrichen our show with their own humanity and talent and presence.