Monday, June 30, 2014

Vietnam Vet fired for giving food to a hungry man

[Warning: The following post contains snark. Those of you who are allergic to snark should not read this article. You have been warned.]

A Vietnam Vet was recently fired from his job as greeter for a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Venice, Florida, because he gave a muffin to a hungry man. The management had to fire the elderly man because, they said, he violated company policy 5 times and that was just too much.

This story quickly went viral on the internet and garnered its share of outraged comments. One comment caught my attention. The author said that no company could stay in business if it permitted its employees to "steal" merchandise. The muffin belongs to the Cracker Barrel and not the greeter. The greeter said he had been warned about taking company property when he took a sip of carbonated sugar water (my words, not his). Anyone who has spent any time in Florida can understand the temptation to keep hydrated, never mind the cost.

The elderly have a tough time in Florida, as everywhere else. They retire from their jobs and head south, intending to live on Social Security and their savings. The savings soon run out and the Social Security check is not sufficient to cover living expenses. What to do? Many take minimum wage jobs as greeters in restaurants or baggers in grocery stores, like this fellow employed by Venice's Cracker Barrel. Apparently, Cracker Barrel's ace executive staff believes the company wouldn't survive if it permitted employees to give away a muffin to a hungry man or take a swig of water every week or so.

Who are these modern Scrooges? You guessed it, they are members of the wealthiest one percent of Americans. The CEO of Cracker Barrel makes in excess of one million dollars a year in salary. Naturally, she has to protect her livelihood by forbidding her minions from handing out muffins to the hungry. After all, as every one percenter knows, people are poor because they want to be, and we can't permit those lazy rapscallions to sponge off the rest of us.

The CEO of Cracker Barrel, Sandra Cochran, is undoubtedly resistant to the pleas of the less than fortunate because she has worked her way up from...uh, she was hired by the owner of Books a Million as Vice President of Finance in 1985, when she was 29. I'm sure most of us wish we hadn't passed up the opportunity to become VP of something or other at age 29, but we just were too lazy to take the opportunity, unlike Cochran.

Anyway, Cochran now heads Cracker Barrel and has established the policy that anyone giving away anything must be fired forthwith. That's because Cracker Barrel already gives away money through its charity to
programs that address children, youth and family issues, and emphasize traditional values such as hard work, education and self-reliance.
Notice that Cracker Barrel emphasizes self-reliance, which clearly poor people do not possess.

The propensity for the one-percent to refuse food to the rest of us is spreading. New York City made it illegal for restaurants to distribute food to the hungry because, as Mayor Bloomberg claimed, the poor might be getting too much fat or salt or something else like that in their diets. The Buttery Shelf Eatery in Indiana was forced to stop feeding the poor one meal a week by its neighbors, who objected to the line of undesirable poor people who showed up to eat the meal. It was running down the neighborhood, they said.

Some organizations have resisted this trend. St. Anthony's Dining Room in San Francisco has been offering hot meals to the poor since 1950. The trend to outlaw giving food away to the hungry has been associated with the "not in my back yard" movement (NIMBY). Those of us who are not one-percenters should catch a clue. If you're not in the one percent, it's not your backyard--it's theirs.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Justice Kagan Schools Conservative Court Cadre on Gun Control

We have all watched the Supreme Court over the past 10 years, since the appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice, march in lockstep. Four conservative Justices with but a single idea, to make sure liberal politicians and presidents can't interpret the law to benefit the least powerful among us. So, in judgment after judgment, these four Justices try to send the country back to the nineteenth century.

We are all waiting for a sea change here. We will take any rational decision as a sign that the SCOTUS has seen the light and will soon be giving up its fight to hold back the future. Abramski v. US is just such a decision.

Justice Kagan wrote the opinion and delivered some smarting comments on the minority opinion.

Writing for the conservative minority, Justice Scalia serves up yet another of the ridiculous opinions that we have become accustomed to. Scalia is the designated obfuscator of the group. His style of argument is the same as the sophists, who Socrates said, made the worse argument appear better. In brief, he decides his verdict before giving reasons for his decisions, then argues to reinforce his prejudice.

Here, in his dissenting opinion, Scalia offers up some truly choice nonsense. For instance, he argues that the court should accept the opinion of the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) as to how the law should be interpreted. He says we should not accept their opinion today, for they agree with Justice Kagan today, but we should take their opinion as of 1968, when they agreed with Scalia. Scalia is well-known for his historicism, frequently discussing what the founding fathers meant when writing the Constitution. In this case, he goes to an extreme, suggesting that the ATF ruling is correct because the ATF understood the intention of Congress when writing the law.

Kagan replies to this obvious nonsense by citing one of Scalia's own opinions, in which he wrote,

we have never thought that the interpretation of those [administrative agencies] charged with prosecuting criminal statutes is entitled to deference.

Another justice than Scalia might be embarrassed by having his own words thrown back in his face, but Scalia knows exactly what he is, namely someone who will use any argument that serves his purpose without concerning himself with whether it is true or false, or whether he has taken the opposite side of the argument at another time.

At another point in his dissent, Scalia says that the law distinguishes the actual purchaser of a firearm from the "deliveryman" or straw purchaser in the same way as if one of them had orange hair. Kagan chastises Scalia's attempt at humor as "wit gone wrong", because the law is not concerned with the color of a person's hair but with who is the actual purchaser of the firearm. The purpose of the law is to prevent people who are not eligible to purchase a gun from obtaining one. The whole purpose of the law would be defeated, says Kagan, if a person with a criminal record could hire a deliveryman with no record to purchase a firearm  and then take delivery. Deliverymen, says Kagan, are not hard to find. To which Scalia has no response.

Furthermore, adds Kagan, many recipients of straw purchases may themselves be eligible to buy firearms, but do not wish to use their own names. She cites a case,  US v Polk, 118 F. 3d, at 289, in which an eligible buyer used a straw purchaser to acquire an arsenal to use against the federal government. In Polk, the plot was thwarted by an informer. It would be pleasant to know that a similar plot could be thwarted by a weapons dealer obeying the law.

Scalia falls back on the "dictionary" method, in which a Justice looks up a word in the dictionary to decide what the meaning of the law is. The dictionary method is only of use as a last resort, since the legal system is based on published laws and court decisions, not the vagaries of dictionary compilers. Kagan once again rejects Scalia's attempt at obfuscation by saying the meaning of a law does not depend on the meaning of individual words, but on the laws "structure, history, and purpose."

Kagan's opinion is clear and concise. She explains the law and its purpose. She does not permit Scalia to spew any nonsense unchallenged. In future, this willingness to challenge a bully may give the other justices the courage to stand up to him as well.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pew Research study lies about political parties

Pew Research has recently released a study on the polarization of American politics. They conclude that both Democrats and Republicans have become more extreme. Their statistics, however, don't prove anything.

Here is one of their most prominent graphs.

This graph shows that there is a greater divide between Republicans and Democrats than there was in 1994. It does not show who is responsible for the divide. The rest of the study consistently reiterates that Democrats as well as Republicans are becoming more liberal, and this is causing the ideological split between the two parties.

The conclusion drawn is false. The charts are specifically chosen to avoid showing which party is more responsible for the divide. In fact, the Republicans have caused most of the gap. The Pew results review the opinions of voters as a whole, but the important polarization is in Congress, and there, according to the following chart, the Republicans provide almost the entire gap.

The second chart comes from Polarized America, a book about income disparity, among other things. In the second chart, which provides information on who is changing and how much, we can see that between 1977-79 and 2011-12, the Democrats in Congress have become slightly more liberal, about 0.1 per cent. During the same period, Republicans in Congress have become 0.5 per cent more conservative. The gap between the two parties has been increased primarily by Republicans becoming more conservative, not by Democrats becoming more liberal.

Given the findings in Polarized America, I can only conclude--with Norm Ornstein--that Pew Research is misinterpreting its own findings in a manner that is highly favorable to the Republican Party. This study's erroneous conclusions will give fuel to journalists and scholars who wish to avoid blaming Republicans for the impasse in Congress. This development is similar to the Republican polls that showed Mitt Romney winning "in a landslide" up until the moment that Barack Obama defeated him decisively in the 2012 presidential election, as well as the poll in Eric Cantor's congressional district that showed he had a 34 percentage point lead just two weeks before he lost a decisive primary.

Conservatives should take no comfort in such misleading reports. Their party is rapidly moving away from the center of the electorate, the place where elections are won and lost.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria was a wise one

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) crossed from Syria into Iraq last week. In short order they seized Mosul, Tikrit, and some other, smaller towns near the Syrian Border. Videos showed Iraqi government soldiers removing their uniforms and fleeing their posts before ISIS arrived. American commentators dismissed their actions as cowardice in the face of the enemy. But it was not cowardice. It was merely an attempt at self-preservation.

Videos released later by ISIS showed in gruesome detail what happened to soldiers who were captured by the invaders. The Iraqi soldiers were rounded up and shot. We need to recognize that the Iraqi soldiers, mostly Shi'ite, who were posted in Mosul and Tikrit were not defending their homeland. They were deep inside enemy territory. Those who could not escape to Baghdad could not be certain of survival, for the people of the region oppose the Iraqi government installed by the American army. The Shi'ite soldiers had no place to hide and no one to aid them.

ISIS had been fighting against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. These were the same fighters that neocons and John McCain had been urging Obama to support. ISIS is aligned with former supporters of Saddam Hussein. They are Sunni Muslims who have a much stronger allegiance to their religious faith than to any government. They are also one of the main forces that have been opposing the Americans in Iraq. Supporting these people would have been a major blunder, akin to the mistake made by the CIA in Operation Cyclone, which led to the empowerment of Osama bin Laden.

We should understand the alignment of forces in the Middle East.

Iran is the leading Shi'ite state. Other Shi'ite leaders are Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki.

Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni State. Saddam Hussein was Sunni. So was Osama bin Laden. There are powerful Sunni forces in Iraq and Syria, where they oppose the current governments.

The wars in the Middle East between Muslim states since WWII can be viewed as proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia for control of the region. The United States has sided with Saudi Arabia consistently during this entire period, despite the fact that the two countries have little in common aside from an interest in oil.

Sanity seems at last to have reached into the American government. Our intelligence agencies have failed to provide accurate information to our decision makers. Even Jimmy Carter was not immune to the belief that Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union was somehow a danger to the US.

We don't know what intelligence reports led Obama to decide against intervention in Syria. Perhaps he knew more about the makeup of the rebel force opposing Assad than the rest of us. Or perhaps he was wary about any intelligence he received from the CIA, since they had failed so utterly in this region in the past. Whatever his reasons, Obama made the right choice. The US now enjoys the enviable position of watching chaos from the outside rather than having it falling on our heads.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

McCain redefines defeat to equal victory

Senator John McCain recently criticized Obama for withdrawing American troops from Iraq. He asserted that the US won the war in Iraq but now, because of the withdrawal, we have lost. This is a strange opinion. The stated goal of staying in Iraq as long as we did was to give the Iraqis time to train their army to defend the country against threats to their security.

The surge worked, says McCain. But the surge was an offensive by 100,000 American troops that quelled an uprising in the Sunni part of the country. The injection of 100,000 well-armed troops certainly pacified that region for as long as the troops were there. McCain argues that we should have left sufficient forces in Iraq to pacify the whole country.

No doubt McCain believes, as did Bush 43, that armies can be held in the field indefinitely without accounting for them in the budget. The neocon instigators of the Iraq war assured the American people that the war would not cost $100 million--as others maintained--because the Iraqis had enough oil revenue to repay us when the war was over.

The same people who refused to levy taxes on the American people to pay for the Iraq war were proposing to levy taxes on the Iraqi people to pay for it. These people should understand that taxation without representation is tyranny, as colonial patriot James Otis declared back in the years prior to the American Revolution. They should understand it because they continually refuse to raise taxes on any Americans for any reason as a badge of honor.

The stated goal of remaining in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein was to give the Iraqis the ability to defend their own country. Since it is now clear that the hyper-partisan, Shi'ite regime that the Americans set up in Baghdad cannot defend itself from Sunni attacks, it must also be clear that the US won the war but Iraq is losing the peace.

The US vision of a united Iraq ignored the history of the region, where Iraq was never united as a country until Britain and France drew its borders after WWI. So there never was and never will be an Iraq in the same way there is a France, Britain, or US. A much more reasonable policy would have been to partition the country along partisan lines, with three smaller countries, Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni state in the west and a Shi'ite state in the east. Such a division could have stabilized the region with less bloodshed and less loss of treasure than the current failed solution.

It is astonishing how quickly the news services have labeled the Sunni partisans as al-Qaida or al-Qaida inspired, just as they once labeled Saddam as a supporter of al-Qaida and the instigator of the 9-11 attacks. The Sunni insurrection may be inspired by al-Qaida, but it may also be supplied by Saudi Arabians, who have the oil wealth to finance such a rebellion. A Sunni caliphate, such as the one envisioned by insurgents, would have a natural ally in Riyadh. Neocons are not going to admit that their pals, the Saudi royal family, may be behind the latest violence in Iraq.

US soldiers are naturally disheartened by the present turn of events. They have a right to be. But the neocons who started the war and lied about its possibility of success have no business blaming President Obama for the failure of their grand design, launched by President Bush in 2003. The neocons must accept the blame themselves for what they persuaded the rest of us to do. They should begin by apologizing to the Americans who fought in Iraq and the families of those who died there, because the Republicans are responsible for the idiotic plan that sent American armed forces to Iraq in the first place.

Senator McCain, against all the evidence, urges us to continue the plan we started. It worked, he says.

No, it didn't work. The plan will cost the American taxpayers more than $2 trillion, making it one of the most expensive failures in history.

Cantor's Defeat: Chalk one up for the 99 percent

Paul Krugman writes that Eric Cantor's defeat in his Republican primary signals the end of the Republican party as we know it. For decades, the Republican party has been selling itself to voters as far more radical than it actually is.

For example, Republicans preached against abortion rights since before Goldwater ran for president in 1964. The Moral Majority, founded in the 1970s, supported Republican presidential candidates like Reagan, Bush, and Dole. The Moral Majority campaigned for a ban on abortions and prayers in the schools.

Republican candidates gave lip service to social issues but ignored them once they got into office. This was an entirely practical thing to do, since there was little chance of convincing less fervent believers that these programs should be imposed on the entire population. Instead, the Republicans took the Moral Majority votes and used them to promote their own agenda, which included wars around the world to protect their financial interests and weakened regulations to protect their business interests.

The Tea Party first came to national prominence with the 2008 Presidential election. There was no clear idea of what the Tea Party stood for, primarily because Republican traditionalists quickly tried to grab its leadership. These included the corporatists, people who wanted to give more power to the corporations, and the libertarians, people who wanted to give more power to individuals as opposed to the state.

These two forces are diametrically opposed to each other. corporatists insist on corporations having more power over individuals, through laws that discourage lawsuits against them and Supreme Court rulings that give corporations more influence over elections than individuals. Libertarians want to preserve individual rights, not just from government control, but from corporate domination as well.

These two disparate factions continued to pour money into Republican coffers during 2010 and 2012, resulting in victories for Republicans in congress and in statehouses. But rank and file Republicans saw the results of these elections as reaffirming their worst fears, namely that the Republican establishment in Washington was continuing to buy their votes with empty promises.

Cantor was one of those politicians who pretended to be populist while getting cozy with financial interests. In the area of home mortgages and financial shenanigans, the tea party and the liberal left agree. They hate the one percent. People in rural Virginia, naturally conservative but very definitely not of the one percent, see Cantor as the enemy. That's the main reason he lost his primary.

Chalk up a victory for the 99 percent of us who find ourselves struggling in difficult economic times.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Trickle-down technology doesn't work any better than trickle-down economics

Marc Andreessen and I used to work for the same company, but he made a lot more money than I did. That said, I think I know a little more about what makes life worth living than he does. It's not the quantity of stuff that you own, it's the quality of living.

Technocrats like Andreessen and economists like Tim Worstall believe that if you have more material goods, you are happier. Andreessen recently got into a tweet-a-thon over this subject. I find his views incoherent. Worstall recently wrote an article about this fallacy for Forbes magazine.

The reason economists love measuring the quantity of material goods rather than quality of life is because it's so easy to do. Worstall puts it bluntly: The fact that an iPhone cost $600 in 2008 and a comparable Android phone costs $20 in 2014, he maintains, proves that technology makes life better for everyone, even the poor.  But it doesn't. It only proves that one single item can be purchased by more people today than in 2002. Worstall's entire argument rests on his belief that owning a smart phone makes life better.

There are things that make life better. I can name a few things that are much better for me than owning a smartphone, which I could do without: holding hands with my wife while we walk through the woods in the rain; talking with my son about the book we bought together 20 years ago; watching children play on the grass; hearing my favorite songs over again. I did talk with my son on a smart phone, but that fact did not increase my pleasure at hearing his voice or recalling the pleasant times we spent together.

Worstall makes the point that Queen Elizabeth I wore silk stockings, a luxury at the time, while nearly everyone in the developed world can afford them today. Here Worstall is discussing fashion, another topic he knows nothing about. Wearing the latest fashions is pleasant, but it's the same pleasure today that it was 400 years ago. The fact that a woman can afford silk stockings does not mean she's going to enjoy wearing them if the fashion this year dictates that she wear bobby socks.

I've been reading Anne of Green Gables, a book written 100 years ago about life on Prince Edward Island. I believe that Anne and her friends had a better quality of life then than we have today. In the first place, she lived on a farm, as did most Americans in the 19th Century. Living on a farm meant working out of doors, breathing fresh air, drinking clean water, and having life-long friends. These are pleasures of which technology has deprived us.

Anne and her friends enjoyed picnics and parties, where live musicians played. Today, only the wealthy can afford to hear live musicians, though technology does permit the poor to enjoy far inferior recorded music. Anne enjoyed live theater, which only the wealthy can afford today, while the poor can only afford inferior prerecorded entertainments. Even better, Anne enjoyed performing for her friends. This is a pleasure which some of the poor can enjoy today, though the realities of technology mean they have less time to practice and hence less chance to become really good at performance.

We can list a few of the things that only a few can find today, that Anne took for granted: Clean, free-flowing streams; unpolluted air; quiet places for contemplation; food free from industrial poisons; a home where peace is unbroken by sirens and horns; a school where children need not fear armed invasion.

In fact, rather than provide all of us with a better quality of life, technology has made things worse for many people. People did not leave the farms for the cities because they disliked the farms, but because technology forced them to do so. People enjoyed the pleasures of small-town, pre-industrial existence. They had more time to savor life to the fullest. They enjoyed the turning of the seasons, the cycles of growth and decay.

Worstall claims that having a GDP that is 8 times greater than 100 years ago means that life is 10 times better than it used to be. This would only be true if material possessions always lead to a better quality of life. But they do not, and never will.

How Hollywood Never Gave Up On The Detective Story by Channing Kapin

So I read this article in the New Republic called "How Hollywood Gave Up On The Detective Story." It's an article waxing nostalgic for detective movies and griping about the lack of detective movies in the theaters. The author of the article, Peter Gerstenzang says that Chinatown was the last hurrah for detective movies, and he quotes Carl Franklin, the director of a very good detective movie, Devil in the Blue Dress complaining that the movies don't make much money so that Hollywood studios don't make them any more. And then Gerstenzang ends the article on a nostalgic sniff about hoping they make more detective movies. The point of the article seems to be the worn out and oft-repeated lament, "They just don't make 'em like they used to." Gerstenzang is suggesting that on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Chinatown, that "Hollywood" has given up on the Hard-boiled Detective genre. Except that he's wrong. He's wrong that they don't make them any more. He's wrong that they don't make them because they lose money, and he's wrong that Chinatown caused this had-boiled movie vacuum.

The problem with the central premise of the article is that in 1974, the year of my birth, and the year Chinatown came out, they didn't really make those kinds of movies any more, either. The trench coat and fedora wearing, flask of rye in the pocket and an ever lit cigarette detective archetype was created and popularized by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the '30s and '40s. There's some argument on who created the archetype exactly, but it's inarguable that these two writers mastered the detective story, that their stories were turned into very popular movies (starring Humphrey Bogart, of course) and they spawned countless imitators.

But that character is a completely fictional construct. There really are criminals, so it makes sense to make crime movies. There really are cops, so it makes sense to make cop movies. There really were cowboys, so it makes sense to make cowboy movies. There never was a hard-boiled detective. He's wholly invented in the pages of Black Mask by a handful of pulp writers. He belongs to a particular era, specifically the 1930's and '40s. And he belongs to a particular place: The Dark City, usually New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. And the farther we get away from that time and place, the more the hard-boiled detective becomes an anachronism and unrecognizable to a modern audience. Chandler and Hammett knew their time and place thoroughly. They didn't need to research the cost of a cup of coffee in 1945. So anything a modern author is going to add will just be researched details and supposition based on a cleverly imagined construct. Their versions will be a xerox copy (already an out of date technology) of a fictional character.

So not only is Gerstenzang waxing nostalgic for an anachronistic, fictionalized cartoon character, he's getting misty-eyed for a very specific kind of movie, the hard-boiled private eye film. He's willingly ignoring the police procedural, the heist film, the crime story from the criminal's perspective, the action movie, the historical underworld biography, the sports movie (usually boxing, but any activity in a sleazy milieu) and the gangster film which were all popular and integral variations that made up the majority of the noir film genre. And all of them have continued to be popular kinds of movies over the years. Gerstenzang just misses movies about those damn fedora-wearing detectives.

The film noir era of Hollywood ran through the '40s and '50s and pretty much had petered out by 1960, with Orson Welles delivering the nail in the coffin to the genre with Touch of Evil, in 1958. Welles plays the logical extension of the hard-drinking, dangerous P.I. life: a bloated, bleary-eyed, thoroughly corrupt detective who's fallen so far he's barely scraping up drinking money by taking bribes and selling drugs in Tijuana.

Welles takes everything from the genre to its natural conclusion. Not just the hard-boiled detective character, but also the femme fatale archetype as well as all the noir film trappings, the moody black and white cinematography, German expressionistic lighting, and the sleazy crime and corruption-ridden stories all go out with a big bang in this movie. Literally and figuratively. There was nowhere left to go.   

The next generation of filmmakers were inspired by the noir era and so Chinatown was one of several hard-boiled movies that came out in the late '60s and early 1970s like BullittPoint Blank and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. But those protagonists don't wear fedoras, so I don't think Gestenzang counts them as being part of the hard-boiled detective film cannon.

I would like to know what Gerstenzang thinks of The Sting (1973). Those guys wear fedoras, but they don't solve mysteries. The movie is nostalgic of a bygone era, set in the city, and features crime, though.

What about Dirty Harry? He's a detective. He's definitely hard-boiled. He goes snooping in back alleys and shoots bad guys. He doesn't wear a hat, however. Dirty Harry inspired the modern action movie, which grew to include Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis as hard-boiled detectives. But for some reason none of their movies qualify for Gerstenzang's definition of what a hard-boiled film should be like. Nope, Gerstenzang is longing for the good old days of the movies set in the 1930s and '40s where a detective wears a hat in the rain. And even if we restrict ourselves to that tiny subset of movies, Gerstenzang is wrong.

When Gerstenzang suggests Chinatown caused the "death of the Hollywood detective movie" he's ignoring other modern crime and detective movies that came out around the same time as Chinatown featuring characters not wearing fedorasand even if we discount those movies, he's STILL completely wrong. If anything Chinatown injected new life into the fedora-wearing genre BECAUSE of it's success and popularity. It inspired a resurgence of old-school detective movies.

In the years immediately after Chinatown you have, Night Moves with Gene Hackman (I know, modern story, no fedora, but he's still a hard-boiled detective.) The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum as Philip Marlowe, Shaft (I know, no fedora, but most-definitely a Private Dick. It says so in the theme song.) Thieves Like Us (they got fedoras, based on a crime novel, not private eyes though.) Drowning Pool (classic modern Private Eye story with Paul Newman, no fedora though.) Peeper (a send up of 1940's private eye movies, starring Michael Caine, and yes he wears a fedora.)

The neo-noir thriller was popular in the '80s with Body HeatAgainst All Odds(Out of the Past remake), Jagged EdgeThe Big Easy, The Postman Always Rings Twice remake, DOA remake. Throwback detective stories include I, The Jury, Angel Heart, Trouble in Mind (hey, fedoras) and Hammett, as well as the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes. And fedoras also play a pivotal role in the Coen Brothers' clasic crime story Miller's Crossing.

So even though I've cherry-picked some titles to try and include private detectives, fedoras and stories that take place in the '30s or '40s or or at least are updates of movies from that era, there are quite a few that Gerstenzang chose not to mention. There are hundreds more neo-noir thrillers, cop movies, crime thrillers, heist films, gangster films and erotic thrillers from this period that should be included as descendents of Chinatown and classic noir films.

Also, Gerstenzang claims the lack of profitability of the genre as a reason we don't see too many of this really small subset of crime movies. But in the last few years we've had Black Dahlia, Public Enemies, and Gangster Squad all tank horribly at the box office, and Hollywood STILL keeps making these movies. Sin City 2: A Dame to Die For is coming out later this summer. And although I don't have high hopes for it's quality, based on my opinion of Sin City 1, this movie still hits squarely in the black and white period films featuring private dicks wearing fedoras genre that Gerstenzang nostalgically pines for.

Finally, to make his point Gerstenzang glosses over the big elephant sitting smack dab in the middle of the room, which is that for the past 30 years detective stories have dominated television. The last time I checked "Hollywood" INCLUDES TV shows.  So you'd have to ignore the last three decade of detective shows on TV... from NYPD Blue, CSI, NCIS, Law And Order to modern Sherlock Holmes stories, and your various Castles, Lie to Me's and Justified, not to mention fedora-wearing shows like Mike Hammer, Crime Story, Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. How did Gerstenzeng not get enough dudes in fedoras on Breaking Bad?!?   Also, 2014 promises to be a banner year for throwback detective stories with series based on Michael Connelly and Charles Willeford hard-boiled detective heroes.

I guess Gerstenzang didn't bother seeing "True Detective", an amazing modern crime story (it's got the word "Detective" right in the title), which runs 8 hours on HBO.  No $80+ million movie can tell one story as in depth, with so many hours spent on character development, with little action, with vivid characters, plot twists and a nuanced mystery.  It's hugely popular and profitable, already has a second season in development, and will probably inspire more detective TV shows and movies. Sorry, no fedoras though.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

President Obama, please pardon Bowe Bergdahl

Republican politicians and pundits are suffering from President Obama's refusal to promote any more legislation in the US Congress. For months, Republicans have made political hay by opposing any proposal made or only mentioned by the Obama administration. Finally, however, Obama gave up. This left a big hole in the Republican propaganda machine.

Republicans have tried to fill this gaping hole by having several committees investigate the assassination of a US Ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. These investigations reek from the stench of desperation. Obama is not playing the congressional game. He's giving them nothing to rant about because he's just ignoring.

Worse yet, the things Republicans do rant about are going south. Republicans are still attacking the Affordable Care Act, but their failure in the states to accept free Medicaid is leading to increasing state medical costs, avoidable deaths, and funding of medicaid in blue states by taxpayers in red states. Even if the Affordable Care Act is terrible--and a lot of things about it are terrible--there is no alternative. It's all we've got.

So it was fairly predictable that Republicans would attack Obama over the release of Bowe Bergdahl. They need to appear on TV with something to say instead of just staring into the cameras. Now they can say that (1) the president should not have negotiated for Bergdahl's release, (2) the president should not have simultaneously released 5 Taliban soldiers, and (3) the president should have informed Congress 30 days before releasing Guantanamo prisoners into foreign countries.

The trouble with those arguments is that they are awkward to defend. The US has always exchanged prisoners of war, especially after the war is over. The armed forces have a long standing policy never to leave a US soldier behind in enemy hands. After the Vietnam War was over, Republicans and unscrupulous profiteers made political hay for decades because there were still POWs in Vietnam. "Bring back our boys!" was their rallying cry. It resonated with every ex-gi and every wife and mother of a soldier.  Now the shoe is on the other foot. Conservatives are saying, "You should have left him there!" It doesn't have the same heroic appeal. Patriots will not fight under that flag.

Republicans object that the 5 prisoners we released from Guantanamo are dangerous Taliban operatives. This is actually the best argument they have. Those prisoners may in fact be deadly killers. On the other hand, it's extremely unlikely the Taliban could not find replacements in Afghanistan. These guys are not nuclear scientists or Rambo. They're just ordinary fighters from a low-tech army. If we wanted to harm the Taliban recruiting program, we should not have gone to Afghanistan in the first place. Since Osama Bin Laden was found and executed in Pakistan, the original premise for invading Afghanistan has vanished. Just like the original premise for invading Iraq.

Conservatives also say that President Obama broke the law by failing to inform Congress of his plans. This is an extremely weak argument for the party that advocated torturing captives and sending captives to foreign countries so they could quietly be tortured or even killed. We're not talking torture here, nor are we talking about trading arms for hostages, as Right-wing poster boy Ollie North did back in 1973. We're talking about bringing an American POW home after the war is over. If it is ever right for the President to break the law, this would be a good place to start because you would be hard-pressed to find someone who disagrees with him.

We saw that movie. It was called Saving Private Ryan. After Tom Hanks and 6 members of his rescue team died to rescue a single US soldier, everyone cried. I cried. Republicans really don't want to go down that road.

It wasn't until several years after the Vietnam War was over that President Carter pardoned draft resisters so that they could lead normal lives. Bergdahl may be guilty of going AWOL or desertion. Going AWOL is a minor offense, usually punishable by less than 30 days confinement. Most cases of desertion carry a penalty of 5 years confinement or less. There is no indication that Bergdahl deserted. In any case, it is impossible to know whether Bergdahl would have returned to base (as he had done twice before) because the Taliban captured him and held him for 6 years.

Bergdahl has already served 6 years in confinement. President Obama should follow up his courageous decision to exchange Bergdahl by pardoning him of any and all crimes he may have committed. That would be a real act of heroism.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

No, Politico, criticism of Monsanto is not at all like climate change denialism

One seeks in vain for neutrality in the popular press these days. But neutrality is what science requires for considerations of its ideas and, more importantly, their implementation. Far more Republicans than Democrats are climate change deniers. Only last month, 227 of 232 House Republicans voted for an amendment that would prevent the US military from using any funds to fight the effects of global warming.

This action goes far beyond mere climate change denial. The House Republicans sought to prevent the military from taking any action that might reduce the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment. Republicans do not merely deny the possibility of man-made climate change. They seek to hasten it. They take this action despite the fact that nearly every single climate scientist on the planet urges them to do the exact opposite.

But Tara Haelle has written in Politico Magazine that it's the Democrats who have a problem with science. She is looking through her own, small lens at a minuscule part of the scientific world. Her theory is like saying that scientists have discovered a huge comet that will strike the earth within 20 years but emphasizing the discovery of a new species of marmot. One of these things is not like the other.

Haelle admits that Republicans object to evolution and climate science, but her article is almost entirely taken up with the premise that Democrats also have a "problem" with science. Haelle is not specific about what the "problem" is. In fact Democrats do not have a problem with science at all.  What they actually have is an awareness, and it is this: large corporations that profit from science frequently falsify study results and hide facts from the public.

Haelle begins her attack on liberals by citing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) position paper on Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), a Monsanto product. The AAAS paper might have been written by the Monsanto marketing department, and perhaps it was. It states that no studies have found anything toxic about food that contains GMO. Toxicity is by no means the only issue with GMOs, however.  There is plenty wrong with the system that produces GMO and generates profits for Monsanto.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the GMO system has created weeds and insects resistant to the Monsanto weedkiller, Roundup. In addition, Monsanto focuses on only a few crops and so decreases biodiversity and discourages organic farming methods. Rather than protecting plants and farmers, Monsanto's GMO "solution" actually makes the entire environment more vulnerable to pests and disease, and creates plants that cannot survive without permanent (and expensive) chemical support.  The problem that Democrats have with GMO is not faulty science but rather that they recognize the dangers inherent in corporate farming and monoculture methods. This "problem" has nothing in common with Republican rejection of global warming science, which was generated by a multi-million dollar campaign financed by corporations that profit by producing greenhouse gases, including Exxon/Mobil and Koch Industries.

Haelle has not thoroughly investigated her topic. Instead, she has added to the false equivalency between Republican obstructionism and Democratic skepticism. We all need to get on the same page with the issue of greenhouse gas production. The reduction and reversal of global warming will require an effort similar to that of the New Deal, where all the resources of the nation will be dedicated to preserving the planet.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What broke Washington: Philip K. Howard, Esq., Unmasked

According to Philip Howard, a Washington lawyer who represents corporations and does their will, the ills being suffered by our society are due to too many laws and regulatory restraints. Howard has whined about this many places, but most recently in a Washington Post OpEd. This sounds a lot like what Republicans have been telling us for years. The American Legal Exchange Council (ALEC) has been conning Republican state legislatures into limiting the ability of the average citizen to sue a corporation which has harmed them. Republicans call this "tort reform". I call it, protecting corporations from the consequences of their own crimes.

Enraged citizens forced tobacco companies to put warning labels on their deadly products by suing corporations in court with class action suits. People dying of cancer on account of exposure to asbestos forced corporations to pay for their medical bills using class action suits. Drivers forced car makers to recall dangerously defective models by suing them in court. Now, citizens are suing coal and oil companies to stop them polluting the environment with mountaintop removal, fracking, and greenhouse gases.

These crimes have been huge and corporations would have gotten away with them but for laws that protect us. The conspiracy of energy moguls to keep spewing out greenhouse gases is the most deadly of all these crimes. Worldwide, millions of people are threatened by global warming, but the energy companies spend millions on propaganda trying to convince us that there is no problem here, and we should just move on. The problem affects the entire planet, of course, and we have nowhere to move on to.

Lawyer Howard does not attempt to hide his sympathies. He lists the plaintiff's bar as one of the culprits in What Broke Washington. The plaintiff's bar is what gives people the right to sue corporations when they lose a lung or break a leg due to some action of an irresponsible corporate executive. Without a plaintiff's bar, corporations can do as they please and let the public pay to clean up the mess later. Some people call this policy "libertarianism". I call it plutocracy, the rule of the many by the most wealthy.

Howard claims another problem is our huge deficit. Many others disagree. They say the deficit is not now nor ever has been a problem. We can pay it down slowly, when the economy is healthy, but we should never make budget cuts that affect the poor when the poor are already bearing the brunt of failed policies of the past. We should rather force the wealthiest 1% to disgorge their millions through a tax on wealth that they can well afford and that will not affect the other 99% of Americans.

Howard blames our failure to repair our aging roads and railroads on Obama and the economic stimulus act passed in 2009. The economic stimulus act budgeted a mere 3% for road repair. Somehow, Howard expects us to believe that the law itself is to blame, perhaps by magic. But it was politicians, Republicans and conservative Democrats, who cut infrastructure funds from that bill and concentrated on giving tax refunds. Tax refunds may be laudable, but they will never repair our potholes.

Lawyer Howard is trying a classic courtroom maneuver, getting his readers to ignore the real problem by pointing to smaller, inconsequential ones. Everyone knows (or should know by now) that what broke Washington is the influence of corporations and their money. Congress can't pass an energy bill, or an immigration bill, or a farm reform bill, or a tax reform bill, or an infrastructure repair bill, because conservative congressmen are too cowardly to vote against the lobbyists who fund their campaigns and send them on junkets to Abu Dhabi.

The solution to congressional deadlock is not to further weaken laws that protect the people from the powerful and irresponsible 1%. The solution is to elect congresspersons with brains and backbones who will pass laws necessary to resolve our problems. These congresspersons will necessarily represent the people and not the 1%. This is a meaningful goal, and not impossible. Lawyer Howard's suggestions would make the 1% happier and sink the rest of us deeper into the morass of plutocracy.

Howard has formed Common Good, a non-profit organization, to push these libertarian doctrines. On its home page, Common Good pretends to be a non-partisan reform coalition, with new ideas. On closer examination, these claims prove false. The Advisory Board includes some middle-of-the-road Republicans like Howard Baker and Jeb Bush. Otherwise, the Board is not a coalition at all, but a bunch of Republicans and corporate front groups like the Manhattan Institute and the Blackstone Group. The ideas Common Good espouses, as noted above, are not new and have been advocated by ALEC and the ultra-conservative American Tort Reform Association, since as early as 1986. I conclude that Common Good itself is a front group for medical corporations and legal firms that want to limit their liability while they continue to kill us.

There once was a liberal on the Common Good Advisory Board: George McGovern. He is still listed on their "about-us" page, but McGovern died in 2012. I don't blame Common Good for mentioning him, though. They want to preserve a semblance of bipartisanship that no longer exists.