Sunday, June 29, 2008

Blatant Democratic party hypocrisy

In previous election years, Democrats have typically tried to camouflage their true beliefs in order to win elections. This year, the Democrats feel so assured of victory that there are openly admitting what believe. Part of what they believe is that totally blatant hypocrisy is entirely justified when it comes to attacking Republicans.

In 1996, the Democratic party's line was that President Bush had committed a crime of near-fascist proportions by "swiftboating" (i.e. launching a smear campaign against a person's honorable military service) his opponent, Senator John Kerry. Now it's 2008 and, as far as the Democratic party is concerned, it's time for the "swiftboating" of Republican Senator John McCain to begin:
With Senator Barack Obama planning to visit the Middle East and Europe in an apparent effort to burnish his foreign policy credentials, the credentials of his likely presidential rival, Senator John McCain, came under sharp attack Sunday from a man considered a possible Democratic vice presidential candidate.

The retired general Wesley Clark said McCain had not "held executive responsibility" and had not commanded troops in wartime.

McCain's experience in Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war for five years, has seemed at times almost to grant him invulnerability to criticism of his security background. But on Sunday he was assailed by a fellow military man, a highly decorated one who was once the NATO supreme commander.

McCain frequently points out that he led "the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy," but Clark said on CBS television that that was not enough to support a claim to the presidency.
Here's hypocrisy for you. Clark thinks that McCain doesn't have enough military service to qualify him for the presidency -- depiste the fact that McCain is a more highly decorated and longer serving military man than John Kerry. On the other hand, Clark thinks that Obama would make a great president despite the fact that Obama's military service is exactly squat.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

EW's 100 new classic films

Entertainment Weekly has a new feature: the 1000 best pop-cultural products of the last 25 years. The 100 new classic films list is particularly depressing. I'm not sure if Hollywood has made 100 films I'd want to even watch again, much less recommend to anyone else.

Some of these films would have never made a top 100 list in a sane world:

1. Pulp Fiction (1994): Everyone knows, deep down, that this film was a critical and popular success only because it was marketing perversion and kink to mainstream America.

25. Shrek (2001): The voting process used to compile these lists will typically let a few bad apples through. That "Shrek" made the list tells us that the voting process obviously failed quite badly. Look everyone, Shrek made another poopie joke! Ha ha!

If you ever want film proof that our culture is becomming progressively more decadent, these two films are it. It's unthinkably depressing that a non-trivial fraction of our film culture is devoted to perfecting the fart/excrement/anal sex joke.

31. Brokeback Mountain (2005): Is it possible that "Brokeback Mountain" made the list to prevent Entertainment Weekly from being sued by one of its key demographic groups?

46. Children of Men (2006): The basic premise of this film is that, in the near future, men are no longer able to impregnate women. Since men can no longer oppress women by saddling them with unwanted children, men decide to set up Orwellian police states instead. Then men decide that Orwellian police tactics are so much fun that, given a choice between (a) having children again and saving humanity from extinction; or (b) beating up dissidents with truncheons while dooming humanity to slow death; the men mostly decide to choose (b).

In other words, you can practically see the Marxism oozing out of the screen when you watch this film.

53. The Truman Show (1998): "The Truman Show" makes it painfully obvious that it is a film about a man who has lived his entire life surrounded by actors inside of a giant, life sized television set. "The Truman Show" literally drops a klieg light out of the sky into the title character's face to definitively establish that, yes, this guy has lived his entire life inside of a television show. Then, since the film still isn't sure that you get the point, it stops the narrative and switches into documentary mode so it can literally tell you that this guy has lived his life inside of a television show!

57. There’s Something About Mary (1998): The Greatest Generation has the singing of "La Marseillaise" in "Casablanca" as one of its greatest film moments. Gen Y has Ben Stiller getting his penis stuck in his zipper.

63. Big (1988): This was the exemplar of a brief burst of Baby Boomer nostalgia films that starred infantilizing body-swap films. The only reason that I can think of to put this film on the list to knock one of the even worse Robin Williams films off of the list.

85. The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005): Think of this as the anti-"Big". Here the premise is that, if you're not having sex all of the time, then you must be bad, demented, crazy, stupid, or evil.

100. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999): Yay, more fart jokes and curse words!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"The Happening" is not happening.

M. Night Shyamalan's latest film "The Happening" is apparently producing some highly negative reviews. For example, Jim Emerson has some strong remarks about it:
Shyamalan seems to have devoted all his talent and skill to bringing off five or six images/effects in the entire film. The rest of the time, he either doesn't know or doesn't care what he's doing, though whether it's due to laziness or lack of interest is unclear. The compact between movie and audience known as "suspension of disbelief" has nothing to do in this instance with the film's otherworldly (or all-too-worldly) apocalyptic premise. We are ready, willing and able to believe that something in the air is mysteriously causing people to lose the will to survive. "The Happening" has more fundamental problems. It doesn't know how to make you believe that people are getting off a train, or standing in a field, or sharing a meal at a kitchen table -- commonplace scenes that should require no suspension of disbelief but are so badly bungled here it's... unbelievable.
I haven't seen the film, but from Roger Ebert's glowing review, I'm willing to offer some speculation about what went wrong. As Ebert points out, the film is another environmental apocalypse:
Elliot [the main character] meets a man who talks about a way plants have of creating hormones to kill their enemies, and he develops a half-baked theory that man may have finally delivered too many insults to the grasses and the shrubs, the flowers and the trees, and their revenge is in the wind.
If you calculated that the plotline is basically trying to capitalize on liberal guilt, you might be correct. Ebert writes:
Most of the other people we meet [in the film], not all, are muted and introspective. Had they been half-expecting some such "event" as this?

I know I have. For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act. We have finally insulted the planet so much that it can no longer sustain us. It is exhausted. It never occurred to me that vegetation might exterminate us. In fact, the form of the planet's revenge remains undefined in my thoughts, although I have read of rising sea levels and the ends of species.
The apocalyptic tale derives it force from striking at the deeply held fears and guilts of its audience. In effect, the apocalyptic tale becomes more believable for its audience when it is made more horrifying. It follows that one of the major flaws of "The Happening" is that it undermines itself by rather blatantly "pulling its punch".

For example, the chief selling point of the "The Happening" (as we can tell from Ebert's review) is that Earth's vegetation creates a neurotoxin that is fatal to humans when humans aggregate in sufficiently large numbers. This is good because it hits at one of the chief anxieties of modern political culture: that a corrupt mankind is out of harmony with nature. This is bad because the mechanism operates in an entirely passive, natural way. By emphasizing that the film's indictment of man is an entirely natural phenomenon, it allows mankind to escape moral indictment. If you think about it, one might as well argue that it is our romantic attraction to nature that is the true problem here. Perhaps New York City would have never been attacked by the plants, if only New Yorkers had had the foresight to ruthlessly exterminate all plant life from their streets and parks.

Another way in which the film pulls its punch is by demonstrating that the neurotoxin causes its victims first to lose the power of speech, then to become disoriented, and then simply and calmly to kill themselves. This acts to drain some of the horror from the act of suicide, since our inference is that the suicides do not understand and do not consciously experience what they are doing to themselves. Instead of overdosing mankind with pain and humiliation like a good apocalypse, here "The Happening" is making an extra effort to be merciful to man.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How to lie with statistics

In this post, Andrew Sullivan appears to be blaming modern conservatism for the entire post-Vietnam era rise in the national debt held by the public. The chart that he uses to illustrate his point is available here. Sullivan's brief analysis obscures a number of important points.

  • First, one major reason for the rise in spending is the federal government paying for the growth of the welfare state. Let's look at things from the historical perspective. Crudely speaking, the Democrats dominated the presidency from 1932 to 1968 and used that power to contruct a massive revenue bomb: the welfare state. After 1968, the Democrats mostly abandoned the presidency to the Republicans at about the same time as the welfare state began to explode.

    Let me rephrase my point. The welfare state was created in the post-1932 golden age of liberalism! Modern conservatism didn't have any political power during those years. Modern conservatism was considered a neurotic mental disease durning those years. Now the moment the welfare state starts going totally apes**t, it all becomes modern conservatism's fault?

  • Notice the big trillion dollar drop in the publically held portion of the national debt in the years between 1996 and 2000. In these years, President Clinton was forced to divert tax revenues from new spending to deficit reduction in order to politically protect the government's ability to increase spending in the future. This singular achievement was accomplished by modern conservatism: Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of 1994.

  • Let's think about the graph more abstractly in the light of some simplifying assumptions. Assume that government spending would remain fixed (in the sense that the hypothetical changes to funding regimes aren't changing the historical year-by-year outlays) from 1968 onwards, so that the only political question becomes how to pay for the spending. Also make the (perhaps too simplifying) assumption that only the rich pay taxes or hold the public portion of the national debt.

    In the light of these assumptions, the graph tells a different story. The rich as a class are still paying for the modern welfare state, but the terms of the payment could have changed. Under the Democrats, we can assume that borrowing from the rich would have much less after 1980, but that taxes on the rich would have been much higher. Under the Republicans, taxes rates are a lot lower than the Democrats wanted them to be, but borrowing at interest is much higher than the Democrats could tolerate. In other words, the Republicans paid for the welfare state by capitalizing it instead of confiscating wealth for it.

    You could think of the federal borrowing regime as a reverse "cap and trade" market for the financial burden of the welfare state. The interest payments on the federal debt represent, under the simplifying assumptions here, money being paid by rich people to other rich people. The interest payments are, in effect, rich people with a low tolerance for holding debt giving "welfare state offsets" to rich people with a higher debt tolerance.

    The reason why government would do something like that is simple. The net effect would be to encourage class harmony by reconciling the rich with the welfare state.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is Indiana Jones a fellow traveler?

James Bowman makes a devastating point about "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull":
McCarthyism, too, gets a mention, by the way. For in spite of liking Ike, Indy gets blacklisted and persecuted by FBI agents who conform to the movie stereotypes of today — being vicious and stupid — rather than those of the period for FBI agents. His nervous university dean (Jim Broadbent) tells him that he himself will have to resign as he can’t be embroiled in "that kind of controversy in this charged climate." He tells Indy that "I hardly recognize this country anymore. The Government has got us seeing communists in our soup" — which you might think an odd sort of complaint to make of the government in a movie that begins by showing a gang of non-imaginary reds taking over an American military base on American soil. Disgusted, Indy says he might go off to Leipzig to teach. Presumably it has slipped his mind that that would have made the government’s case for his being a subversive, since Leipzig was in communist East Germany at the time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Yet more Obamastupidity

A month ago, liberals were complaining that Hillary Clinton was a totally ignorant fool for suggesting that lower gasoline taxes will lead to lower gas prices (embedded hyperlinks removed):
The gas tax holiday doesn’t help “ordinary Americans.” The supply of petroleum during the summer months is essentially fixed, and the oil companies will charge what traffic will bear. If taxes are lower, they will simply charge the same amount and pocket the difference. Clinton’s proposal includes some weird end-around in which the oil companies pay extra windfall profits taxes so that the idea is purportedly revenue-neutral; which means the whole scheme is precisely meaningless, as the same amount of tax is being paid either way.
Now, the liberal theory is that higher taxes are the key to lower gas prices:
Senate Democrats on Wednesday called for a windfall profits tax on oil companies and a rollback of $17 billion in oil industry tax breaks as part of an energy package. The proposal also would impose federal penalties on energy price gouging and calls for stopping oil deliveries into the government's emergency reserve.
Here's the argument for why this would reduce gasoline prices:
Democrats characterized the proposal as attacking "the root causes of high gas prices," although it wasn't clear how today's high oil costs _ set in a global market _ or gasoline prices edging toward $4 a gallon would be appreciably affected.
As you might have expected for a proposal that seems like a no-brainer to Barack Obama, this proposal only makes sense from a hard-core Socialist standpoint. The operating theory here is that oil executives raise prices only because they hate poor people, profit from price gouging them, and actually enjoy the screams and moans of despair as poor people are driven to madness, sickness, and death by ever-higher prices. In the Obama universe, the only thing keeping oil executives from raising oil prices to infinity per barrel is the determination of Democrats to really f**k the oil companies if they raise prices to high.

Thus, the price of oil is not set by a balance of supply with demand but by the "balance of terror": the balance of the oil company's greed with the ability of the Democrats to wage class warfare against them.

Brain damaged commentary about Iraq

Senator Barack Obama seems to have this magic power for convincing otherwise sane people to believe absurdities. The latest example comes from David Corn (via Andrew Sullivan):
So what might happen to the McCain candidacy if the talks [governing the future of U.S. troops in Iraq]--which are supposed to lead to an agreement by the end of July--fail and Iraq gives Bush the boot? McCain won't have a war to promote any longer. And he won't be able to depict Barack Obama as a defeatist surrender-monkey who will yank out troops precipitously and endanger every single family in the United States. In other words, half of McCain's campaign will be gone. (On the Today Show this morning, McCain said that "General Petraeus is going to tell us" when U.S. troops can be withdrawn from Iraq. McCain seemed oblivious to this recent news and the possibility that Iraqis may tell the United States when to withdraw.)
This is seriously and profoundly flawed reasoning. Consider, for example, the charge that "McCain won't have a war to promote any longer" if the Iraqi government calls for American troops to leave Iraq. In late 2006/early 2007, the Democrats considered Iraqi to be in a state of out-of-control violence, total political failure, and civil war. The Democrats blamed these conditions on Bush's conduct of the war. In response, Senator John McCain called for a change of strategy, namely the "surge", and President Bush agreed and went ahead with it.

Now it's two years later. The violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically. The government of Iraq is becoming increasingly stable and effective. If the Iraqi government asks us to withdraw our troops now, it's because we have achieved victory(!!!) to the satisfaction of Iraqis! To think that this would be some kind of killer argument against the McCain campaign is totally insane.

Trust me, if the Iraqi government does call on the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraqi, the political situation will be exactly the opposite of what David Corn believes. If that happens, George W. Bush and John McCain will be proclaiming success from the nation's rooftops while Barack Obama and the Democrats will be complaining that our troops needed to stay in Iraq (until after the election, that is...).

The first rule for being a hatchet man... not bludgeoning yourself with the hatchet. Here's what Senator John Kerry had to say about John McCain's remarks on the "Today" show this morning:
John Kerry, who's served in the past as Obama's heavy-hitter on national security, expressed incredulity at McCain's remark this morning that the timing of troops return is "not too important."

"It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs of Americans and particularly the families of troops who are over there. To them it’s the most important thing in the world when they come home," he said. "It’s a policy for staying in Iraq."
John McCain spent more than five years being tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp, yet according to Kerry, McCain doesn't understand what it is like to be an American serviceman stationed abroad for a long period of time.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A clueless conservative

Mona Charen, like many conservatives before her and many conservatives to come, asks the critical question of our time:
Do American Jews really love Israel, or just Democrats?
The big-name conservative pundits have spent the last six months telling us that the Republican Party needs to be destroyed in order to purge it of a sinister, liberalizing influence (commonly known as "them"). They also can't figure out why Jews love Democrats so much? Gee, I wonder why?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

LOST season 4 sucks!

I finally broke down and watched most of LOST season 4 this week. I had assumed that the season 3 finale would be a "jumped the shark" moment. In reality, LOST didn't just jump the shark; it started dancing the Charleston on the rim of the shark tank. Thoughts about what went wrong will accumulate here.
  • The first thing to realize about LOST season 4 is that the producers of LOST hate LOST. The mass extermination of plot elements that took place in season 3 only gets much worse in season 4. Season 4 doesn't just toss nearly all of the surviving "mythology" into the trash bin; season 4 kicks the main characters off of the island and then *MOVES THE ISLAND* so they can't get back to it.

  • The point of LOST season 4 is that LOST, from this point on, is going to be an entirely new show. This new show, which we might call "The Benjamin Linus Chronicles", involves LOST season 3 supervillain Benjamin Linus becoming Benjamin "Danger" Linus, international man of mystery. In season 4, Benjamin Linus finally decides to leave the island in order to become a world-bestriding colossus who uses his vast wealth (never seen) and influence (never seen) to wage a global war on terror against industrial titan Charles Widmore (i.e. the rich, evil, old white guy).

    The island, on the other hand, is pretty much worthless now that Ben has become Blofeld. Locke inherits it as his consolation prize.

  • At this point, you must be assuming that season 4 explains the remaining mysteries surrounding the island. Season 4 tells the audience squat about the island! It also shows the characters who do know the secrets of the island making it clear that you are too stupid to understand them, even if they told you. Characters who know the secrets of the island even threaten each other with violence in order to prevent the slightest scraps of information from leaking out to the viewer.

    News flash: you, the viewer, are not going to be told the answers to any of the island's mysteries, ever. The producers obviously assume that you are some kind of mouth-breathing idiot for even bothering to care about the show's mysteries.

  • Another of the serious problems of season 4 is that the producers apparently came down with a case of "Seinfeld"-itis when they were planning it. For example, season 4 makes heavy use of flash forwards (the opposite of flashbacks) with the twist that the flash forwards are in a rough reverse chronological order between successive episodes. In other words, half of season 4 uses the "Seinfeld" trick of telling the story "backwards".

    Another example comes near the end of the show when the six Flight 815 survivors who make it back to civilization (i.e. "the Oceanic six") give a press conference to a legion of eager reporters. The reporters start asking the survivors some unpleasant questions which become extra unpleasant for the six survivors because they are shamelessly lying in their answers. The effect is to echo another notorious "Seinfeld" innovation: putting the star characters on trial for the crimes and misdemeanors that they've committed in previous seasons.

  • There is one real trial presented in season 4: fugitive/murderer Kate Austin is put on trial for her crime spree before crashing on the island. In defiance of the near-universal expectation that Kate would get a totally inexplicable presidential pardon in advance of the proceedings, the prosecuting D.A. actually manages to plea bargain Kate up to a slap on the wrist.