Tuesday, September 29, 2009

David Brooks, Fiscal Restraint, Culture Wars, and Hollywood

David Brooks has a good column today about a fundamental American value: fiscal restraint. He points out that over the course of our history, our materialism has been balanced by a countervailing thrift. He points to the old WASPs, immigrant families who sacrificed for their kids, etc. Then he throws out some numbers about how in debt we are as a country, and how we are going to have to experience a major cultural shift if we are to get our fiscal house in order. He ascribes equal blame to both sides of the ideological spectrum, conveniently forgetting that it was Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and supply-side economics that have gotten in to this mess, while Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget. Other than willful blindness, I think he's basically right.

I am an eternal optimist, so it's not hard for me to find some encouraging signs; the decline and fall of the insane demand for luxury that has besotted us and driven developers to erect ever-more fabulous monuments to consumption. But I find the most encouraging sign in what may be the most unlikely, and yet the most likely, of places: Hollywood.

I say "most unlikely" because Hollywood is about the farthest from anyone's mind when looking for examples of monetary sanity; this is a community rather well known for spending lavishly.

But I saw "most likely" because Hollywood is also where many great trends get started. One trend in the box office this year has been the decline and fall of a fair number of movie stars and their potential for opening movies and making millions. So far this year, Duplicity, starring Julia Roberts, State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, and, just this past weekend, Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, have all done much worse than expected. These people are not earning their $15-20 million paychecks.

Which raises the question: were they really worth $20 million? Presumably, yes; movie studio executives aren't that stupid, and, in fact, they tend to be fairly intellectually disciplined when calculating their bottom lines. Which is one reason Sandra Bullock starred in The Proposal, rather than Julia Roberts: Julia wouldn't cut her $20 million fee, Sandra Bullock was perfectly willing to do it for less, and wound up with the biggest hit of her career.

Movie stars are no more or less greedy than regular people; if I had the chance to make $20 million for 3-6 months of work, you damn well better believe I would take it. They are also no more or less greedy today than they were in previous generations; the nature of human greed has not changed in the last few years. Technology has, and with it certain aspects of the Hollywood business model. It's physically possible to distribute movies today in a way that wasn't possible even 30 years ago. A major studio release generally hits 3,000 screens on opening weekend; Star Wars, by contrast, opened on May 25th ,1977, on a grand total of 43 screens.

Movie stars have been making millions of dollars a movie because they could. Audiences, however, are also ever-more discriminating. The fact that Bruce Willis is in Surrogates is not a guarantee that it will be a good movie. Moviegoers are shade more conscious of what kind of value they are getting for their entertainment dollar. Studio executives are also, I hope, more conscious of the value of their budgets. There is some reason to be optimistic in the recent firing of Dick Cook from Disney. Bob Iger has made it clear that he isn't all that happy with Disney's slate of movies these days. Surrogates is a Disney movie. Bob Iger was worried that Disney is not making good movies, so he fired the head of the studio, Cook. Looks like Iger made the right call.

Money does strange things to peoples' brains: it takes a certain a certain amount of intelligence to make money, but too much money can give people the impression that they are smarter than they are, which leads them to making stupid decisions. We're in the post-stupid decisions phase in this country now. Too much money led way too many people to think that they were smarter than they are, which led them to make stupid decisions. This recession is a wake-up call. The generation that survived the Great Depression was a frugal one.

Money also has a strange way of convincing people that they are worth more than they really are. Certain movie stars seem to think that. They think of themselves as being worth vast sums of money, when their worth is really determined by that insanely fickle entity known as the audience.

What the market giveth, the market taketh away. We are seeing a certain rebalancing of the equation of inequality, at least in Hollywood. Personally, however, I think the best solution to rebalancing inequality is the old-fashioned one: tax the rich.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ultrafast Apple Pie

OMG does this look fun:

Regime change in Iran?

Now that we know that Iran has a weapons site dedicated to creating nuclear weapons, Republicans are upset and demanding "regime change." As Josh Marshall points out, that does not necessarily translate into military action. But don't these people ever learn? Didn't our last attempt at "regime change" in that part of the world, and, in fact, next door to Iran, not really work out so well?

Naturally, these Republicans are disdainful of diplomacy. One reason for conservative opposition to diplomacy is increasingly obvious to me: they're not very good at it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kyl v. Stabenow

Jon Kyl, Republican senator from Arizona made a bit of a mistake today. Michael Kinsley famously said that a gaffe is what happens when a politician tells the truth. Kyl, in this case, said something that is undeniably true. Speaking of health care and requiring insurance companies to cover certain conditions, he mentioned that he does not need maternity care. So forcing him to pay for it will make his policy more expensive. Good thing he has health insurance - I think he's going to need surgery to extract his foot from his mouth. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he has to meet with his female staffers. To say nothing of his wife or daughters.

Debbie Stabenow, Democrat senator from Michigan, came right back with the perfect response: "I think your Mom probably did." Wow. She's going to be a feminist hero for the next election cycle. At least. I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the next conversation she has with her campaign treasurer. I think she probably got a few clicks of the PayPal button for that line.

But other than a moment of good political theater, this illustrates a couple of things. First, it illustrates that Jon Kyl does not understand the basic principle of insurance: the point is to spread the risk. Of course he can't get pregnant. Of course, he can GET someone pregnant, and if he doesn't believe in paying for maternity care, I think we need to ask him some questions about how he feels about men being responsible fathers. But there's also almost no chance that he will get breast cancer, and there are other diseases that he can't get. There are, however, diseases that he can get that women can't - does that mean that women shouldn't pay for prostate cancer coverage? We do make adjustments for insurance coverage based on things like smoking, but that is a personal choice, not a result of genetics.

Second, it also illustrates a fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. The classic liberal criticism of conservatives is that conservatives are not compassionate. I'm not sure that's the case; I've known some conservatives - notably my grandparents - who cared very deeply for their loved ones. The difference seems to me to be a matter not of compassion, but of imagination. Conservatives do not seem very good at empathizing with someone with a different point of view. This explains why conservatives are very compassionate towards people who are like them, but not so much towards people who are not like them. This is why conservatives are willing to use torture. They feel the pain of people who died on 9/11 - mostly Americans, like themselves - but they do not feel the pain of the people being tortured.

This is also why Jon Kyl doesn't want to pay for maternity care - he doesn't empathize with women who might have to go through childbirth. I have a feeling, however, that he is going to be empathizing with women on this score in short order. There are many, many women who are not going to let him forget this comment. It has to be one of the most sexist things I have heard in a long time.

It feels almost trivial to be pointing this out, but it does seem to highlight a basic difference: liberal brains are wired to empathize with people who different than they are, and conservative brains are wired to empathize with people are similar to them. This applies to "liberal" and "conservative" as we currently understand them in American political discourse; there are philosophical definitions of each that do not necessarily mesh with this distinction.

There are strengths and weaknesses of each; conservatives are more self-reliant, and forge tight bonds with each other, while liberals appreciate differences and are better at forming political allegiances across all kinds of differences. Conservatives don't deal well with people unlike themselves, but liberals can overcompensate and become hypersensitive to differences.

Fortunately for liberals, the ability to understand and empathize with people with different perspectives confers a substantial advantage in politics. Particularly when there are more and more people like that, both in this country and around the world, who are demanding to be treated as equals.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quote of the Month

"First of all, I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election."

President Obama, responding to David Letterman's question about whether or not opposition to his policies is rooted in racism.

The audience went crazy, and Letterman - to his credit - had a good follow-up: "How long have you been a black man?" Of course, the fact that he can come up with a good line is why he has this show.

One thing that continues to impress me about Obama is how comfortable he is in his own skin. He can go on Letterman, look completely relaxed, crack a great joke, and then explain how other presidents have dealt with the same kind of bitter, angry opposition, and how that is simply part of politics. This kind of equanimity, of course, is one reason he is president, and it stands in stark contrast to the rantings and ravings of the teabaggers and their demagogues.

It's also a stark contrast to George W. Bush, who, in retrospect in particular, was very uncomfortable with being president. Obama knows that he is up to the job. You have a feeling about Bush that initially he thot he was up to the job, but at some point he realized he was in over his head.

One thing that I am very much looking forward to is a video comparison of Bush at a press conference, in an interview, giving a speech, compared to Obama in the same positions. Can't wait for that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Obama on Missile Defense

President Obama is scrapping the Bush Administration plans for missile defense in central Europe, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Great move. Good for him. I remember reading about Obama's plan for missile defense during the campaign; I actually read his position paper on his Website. If I remember correctly, he was supportive of it. I was a little surprised, but that I realized that Obama was probably thinking of missile defense as a bargaining chip with the Russians. He was pretending to be in favor of it, so that he would have something to give away when negotiating with them.

But this particular missile defense program was a terrible bargaining chip with the Russians, because it pissed them off so much. Bush argued that this was designed to protect Europe against Iran. Russia didn't buy that, neither did I, and neither did almost anyone else in the world. The geography is just ludicrous; Poland is a long way from Iran. And why would the Iranians want to send missiles into any European country? Why would the Iranians want war with, say, Germany or England? Those are NATO countries, so all other NATO countries would be obligated to respond. Any attack by Iran on any European country would be completely insane. First, Iran would be toast, and second, what would Iran possibly gain from such an attack? They certainly aren't going to take any territory from Denmark.

The Russians saw this missile defense as a thinly - and poorly - disguised defense against them, and, in effect, a revival of the Cold War. This was incredibly insulting to them, and for good reason. Of course, Bush didn't care about making the Russians mad. If they yelled, it just proved that he was doing something right.

What I'm sure Obama realized is that the Russians did not want to negotiate over missile defense because to do so would have meant that they would have recognized it as legitimate. Which they absolutely did not want to do. For the Russians, putting in this missile defense was essentially an act of bullying by the US. For them to include it in any kind of bargain would have meant acknowledging that the US could threaten them with impunity, walk away, and then do it again. That's intolerable to them, because it makes them look weak.

So Obama by withdrawing this missile defense plan, Obama gave the Russians something they crave above all else in international relations: respect.

Of course, the Russians are not alone in that. Every country wants respect. It's particularly important for the Russians because Russia is still by far the largest country in the world, with vast resources. The Russians feel that they deserve respect in large part because they do.

Obama is treating the Russians like adults. He is sending the signal that he is not afraid of them, he will deal with them from a standpoint of equals, rather than out of fear, and he will not let his insecurities - or the insecurities of a few chickenhawk conservatives - determine American foreign policy.

Some will argue that Obama gave something away without getting anything in return. I disagree. Obama was never going to get anything from Russia in return for missile defense. What Obama gets - what the entire world gets out of this decision - is a world with a little less fear.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back on the grid

Well that was a great vacation. I spent a few days ignoring politics as much as I could; I didn't read a newspaper item about politics, despite subscribing to the LA Times and the Financial Times; didn't check a blog or news Website of any kind.

It lasted about three days. Maybe four. Then I started feeling the urge again.

But it was a wonderful three or four days. Really cleared my head. It was particularly useful to take a step back from the partisanship on both sides. Much as I agree with the progressive/liberal side, I also very clearly remember the political correctness of the 1980's, and sort of still have some scars from that. So I am very sensitive to liberals enforcing ideological purity, particularly with invective and sarcasm aimed at people on their side with different approaches or ideas for reaching a similar goal. Not a big fan of that.

So what did I miss? Some guy named Joe Wilson embarrassed himself and his party by heckling Obama during his speech to Congress. I still haven't watched that, but plan to. I think the House did the right thing by voting formal disapproval. I am a big fan of respecting your ideological opponents, but self-respect also demands that you stand up for yourself occasionally, and I think that's what the Democrats did. I would like to think that I would have the same position if the situation were reversed. I would like to go on record as advocating the same penalty for a Democrat if he/she heckles a Republican president.

The healthcare debate is crystallizing. Is Max Baucus a fool or a hero? Right now, it depends on the time of day, and where you stand on the public option. At the very least, Republicans cannot say that they were not given an opportunity to have their voices heard - Baucus gave them every chance to contribute. If they don't like the final product, that's fine, but they can't claim that Democrats shoved it down their throats.

But if the bill passes without some kind of public option, liberals, particularly the Kossacks, are going to crucify Baucus for giving away the store and not getting anything back. That does look like a questionable strategy.

Obama imposed tariffs on Chinese tires. My question is: was this justified by treaty and/or international law? I haven't been able to find out. I'm assuming it's a bump in the road - I have seen many other trade disputes flare up and then dissipate. My guess is that that will happen here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Off the grid

I am pulling an Andrew Sullivan and going off the grid for a few days. I'm not just not blogging; I'm trying to ignore news as much as I can. Haven't looked at TPM, Andrew Sullivan, or Daily Kos for a couple of days. I haven't even watched or read Obama's speech on health care.

I think it's been at least two years, since the summer of 2007, when I got involved in the Obama campaign, since I have really given myself a sustained break from worrying about the rest of the world. It feels really good.

It's a little late to be taking a break, since the rest of the world did so in August, but better late than never.

In other news, I was at Starbucks today and bought an album you may have heard of, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's amazing to realize that I actually know every single song on the album. There are damn few albums that I do not own that I can say that about. And I know every single song really well. And probably just about every person I know knows every song really well. It's a digitally remastered edition, with a mini-documentary. I haven't watched that yet.

Unfortunately, unlike Andrew Sullivan, I don't have an under-blogger to cover for me, so commentary on health care and the latest Republican idiocy will be forthcoming in a few days.

Also, tomorrow USC continues its march towards its next national title by taking on Ohio State, and that, of course, is much more important than something like health care reform. I bought a new USC t-shirt today. I also learned that the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, oldest and greatest film school in the world, got its own star today from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. When you walk around Hollywood, there are stars in the pavement with the names of famous celebrities. Now USC has one, but it is actually on the USC film school campus. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. would be proud - he founded the school and taught the first course. He had some pull within the industry at the time - he was the president of a new group called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Go Trojans!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wildfires and Scrambled Eggs: Elegy for the Hidden Springs Cafe

Here in LA, we're almost used to wildfires. We're surrounded by lots of dry trees that seem to burn quickly. That's one price we pay for living in a hot, sunny, dry climate. We're starting to learn to live with them, getting better at defensive construction, getting people out of the way. But there's always an element of tragedy in fires as big as the ones we have had here in LA, particularly when, like these, they burn close to large population centers. I could see smoke - lots of it - from my office in downtown LA.

For me, the great tragedy in this fire was the loss of a small building in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, the Hidden Springs Cafe. The Website is still up, but the Cafe itself is completely gone. The LA Times, to its eternal credit, had an article about the Cafe before its fate was known. They devoted a fair amount of space to it.

I discovered the Hidden Springs Cafe several years ago, driving through the Angeles National Forest. It wasn't hard to find, once you knew where it was, but it sure was hidden. To get there, you headed up the 2, into the Forest. Once there, you drove about 7 miles, and then turned left. Then another 7 miles, and it was on your left. Impossible not to notice, because it was the only building for miles. I'd go there every few months, for a mini-vacation.

I have to admit that I didn't really go there for the food, except for the chili, which was great (it was advertised as "nearly world-famous"). Most of the rest was pretty basic diner food, but very good diner food. I usually went for the grilled ham and cheese.

But what the Hidden Springs Cafe lacked in culinary flamboyance it made up for in charm and character, and it had those in spades. It was a small place, with about 8 stools around a horseshoe counter, and a couple of picnic tables outside. There was only room for one cook in the kitchen, but that was all that was needed. The cook's name was Jim, and his twin sister Janice was the waitress. Their mother Elva was usually there too, partially because she lived upstairs, partially because she owned it, and I don't think I ever remember her not smiling. Jim and Janice traded banter like nobody's business. Their older brother Otis was there occasionally. He would play banjo for the customers. He was there the last time I was there, in July, subbing for Jim. I ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast, with toast and bacon. Otis told me that he wasn't really good with scrambled eggs. I thot this was something of an odd confession for a short order cook, but it was utterly charming that this guy would share this kind of tidbit with me. The eggs were fine, they just weren't very scrambled. But they were the only scrambled eggs I've ever ordered that I remembered, and will always remember.

The family had owned it since 1971, and you could feel every day of those years on the walls. The best of those years was carefully layered on those walls, and preserved, not so much through comprehensive attempts at preservation as through constant attention to keeping the place like it always was. Ironically, one of the major decorative features was a string of Smokey The Bear posters, including the very first one. It was the kind of place where you felt very comfortable immediately, and kept feeling that way.

It wasn't just the family that ran it that made it a fun place; it always attracted people, some regulars, and some people just wandering by. You were pretty much guaranteed a good story, either from Jim, Janice, Elva, or Otis, or from someone who had been there dozens of times and was stopping by to check in and catch up. The Hidden Springs Cafe was like its very own small town, in the middle of a National Forest the size of Rhode Island, in the middle of one of the most populous counties in the world. It was a quiet little dot a few miles north of Hollywood, world capital of spectacle and glamour. The food was cheap but as good as it could be, the root beer floats were classic, and the charm was real. Just as real was the love the people there had for each other, their jobs, the lifestyle they had carved out for themselves, and the people who had discovered this little bit of magic. I will miss the Hidden Springs Cafe.