The Last Pictureshow

The folks who made the new GI Joe movie have not made their masterwork available for critic's screenings. Movie buffs love to chuckle over such naked displays of authorial guilt - hey, they must know it sucks, too, right? - but, frankly what's the point of having the W$J's movie critic spend 2 hours watching a movie inspired by a toy line? The review practically writes itself, and the W$J's readers are not likely to have watched the movie anyway. Still, the W$J's Joe Morganstern cares enough to try to write a review based on nothing more than the trailer: GI Joe The Rise of Cobra

The first thing that happens in the trailer involves the Eiffel Tower, which is hit by a missile and makes a splash by falling into the Seine. I don’t like movies that trash the Eiffel Tower, although I loved “The Lavender Hill Mob,” in which Alec Guinness’s mild-mannered bank clerk smuggles gold bars out of England by turning them into Eiffel Tower paperweights.

The second thing involves an ­actor intoning, voice-over: “We have never faced a threat like this. A team is being assembled. They’re the best operatives in the world. When all else fails, we don’t.” Even apart from the actor pronouncing “assembled” as “assimbled,” the speech suggests a sound clip from an early rehearsal of a junior-high-school pageant. I don’t like movies with bad actors reading dumb lines.

Like, I said, the review practically writes itself. A better focus may have been to ask why the producers of "GI Joe," the original "real American hero," felt compelled to assemble "the best operatives in the world," rather than an all-American crew of stock archetypes and ethnic stereotypes like Hollywood used to do for B-17 bomber crews.

Morganstern likes to declare that movies based on toys are a sign of cultural decline, but surely the de-patriating of an American icon - even if in toy form - is a much more potent symbol of such decline.

Slothrop at Creekside

Thomas Pynchon has yet another book coming out. Remember the days when he was this mysterious figure (only one photograph of him ever taken! People thought he might actually be Salinger!) who published no new fiction for 17 years after his landmark "Gravity's Rainbow?" That's pretty much a thing of the past. He has now averaged a new novel every 5 years ever since "Vineland" came out: Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice"

Compared with “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “V.” or “Mason & Dixon,” this novel is Pynchon Lite. Those earlier books featured intricate, mazelike narratives and enigmatic confrontations between what he has called “average poor bastards” and emissaries of “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing.” In contrast, “Inherent Vice” is a simple shaggy-dog detective story that pits likable dopers against the Los Angeles Police Department and its “countersubversive” agents, a novel in which paranoia is less a political or metaphysical state than a byproduct of smoking too much weed.

I think I'll pass, although "Gravity's Rainbow," "Vineland," and "Mason & Dixon" are some of my favorite books. Pynchon only works when you are young and post-modern.

I can't discuss Pynchon without mentioning that you should read "Positively 4th Street" by David Hadju if you want to read anything like a Pynchon biography. Hadju subject was the coupling of Joan Baez/Bob Dylan and Richard Farina/Mimi Baez. Pynchon plays a supporting role thoughout, as he was Richard Farina's roommate at Cornell, and best man at the Farinas' wedding. After decades of the "mysterious Pynchon," it's surprising to see how cool and normal he actually was, and no doubt is.

Here In My Car

OK, "Cash for Clunkers" is an essentially stupid program. You hear the grinding of teeth as servicable cars are destroyed, the used car & parts markets are distorted, and next year's demand is pulled forward into this year. But, Larry Kudlow offers some surprising support: Vote for the Clunkers

In virtually no time, the clunker program has become a national pastime. It has captured the public’s imagination in a way that no other federal stimulus has. Everyone is talking about it. And I truly believe that consumer spirits have been buoyed by the prospect of going out and buying a new car — even with federal assistance, and even under the duress of federal mileage standards.

After a very dreary year or two, people might just have fun trading in their clunkers and buying something new.

Even today, as unfashionable as it sounds, and given Washington’s attack on horsepower, Americans are still in love with automobiles. They still like going to showrooms, checking out the new models, inhaling the great new-car smell, and, yes, kicking the tires and making a buy. Cars may no longer be the heart of our economy — that’s all techie, information gadgets now. But folks still love the car thing.

Now, I wouldn’t want the government to pass out free money for everything. But in this particular case, the cash-for-clunkers rebate program is working. It’s working so well that it’s running way ahead of the computers that are administering it at the Transportation Department and Citibank.

Well, sure. That’s government for you. But unlike most of the rest of the fiscal-stimulus plan, this program actually works because the federal cash rebate actually contributes to a consumer purchase. It’s not just another welfare-type transfer program.

Eh. If you say so. Actually, he is right that this is the sort of stimulous that the $787 Billion monster from earlier this year was supposed to accomplish and didn't. And, Kudlow's right that it is a highly visible program, also unlike the stimulous, where it is unclear where the $$ is going and who is getting it. But ... come on! What kind of program runs out of $$ after just 4 days? We've had a little sugar rush, but too much will not be good.


Squeaky Fromme is being paroled after serving 33 years in prison for her attempted assassination of Gerald Ford at the Capitol Building in Sacramento. I don't approve: Squeaky Fromme To Be Paroled

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the waif-like Charles Manson follower who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford outside the Capitol in Sacramento in 1975, will be released from prison as early as Aug. 14, authorities said today.

Fromme, now 60, has been serving a life sentence in Texas. A federal parole board granted her parole last year, but her release was delayed because she got extra time after trying to escape from a West Virginia facility in 1987.

Northern California was not kind to Ford, as he survived a second attempted assassination just 17 days later in San Francisco. Sarah Jane Moore was also a Manson acolyte and is (I think) still in prison.

It's unclear why the Manson Family was gunning for Ford. Fromme's "insights" on the matter failed to provide much-needed clarity:
She once denounced the president in an interview with the Associated Press, saying, "If Nixon's reality, wearing a new Ford face, continues to run the country against the law, our homes will be bloodier than the Tate-LaBianca houses and My Lai put together."

Yes, kids, people used to talk like that back then. PJ O'Rourke - or maybe Dave Barry? - once joked that 21st century grandkids would have to cope with aging Baby Boomers having "Nixon fits." It seemed funny at the time, but that was before Bush Derangement Symdrome kicked in.

It's hard to imagine what Fromme is like now. She was clearly a troubled, if not disturbed, young woman who wasn't quite crazy enough to qualify for an insanity defense, although the fact that she represented herself at trial probably didn't help. Not sure why she's being paroled now. Is she sick? Is it because Ford died? Whatever it is, I sincerely hope there will be no tearful media appearances. If would-be presidential assassains can now be paroled, can we at least agree to ignore them once they're out?

The Austrian Way

The complete meltdown of the financial system seems to have abated, but we are still living with the uncertainty that the Panic of '08 generated. The uncertainty comes from the revelation that our largest financial institutions, and their regulators, were built on a house of cards, rather than the solid citizens that their marketing and regulatory filings had suggested. The panic may have passed, but the suspicion remains that there are significant weaknesses in our government and financial system. What to do? Well, we could always muddle through. But some are not satisfied with this and propose more radical surgery, such as abolishing the Federal Reserve: End The Fed? A Not So Crazy Idea

The Fed's apologists suggest otherwise, of course. They note that the US spent nearly half the years between 1854 to 1913 in recession, as opposed to just 21 percent of the time since the Fed's establishment in 1913. Who would want to go back to those bad old days?

But consider: the US economy has actually grown less rapidly since 1914 than it did before. And inflation has been much worse, despite both the Civil War, which featured the nation's worst inflation, and the Great Depression, which featured its severest deflation!

What's more, the frequent downturns before 1914 were due, not to the lack of a central bank, but to foolish government regulations. Topping the list were bans on branch banking, initiated by state governments and then incorporated into federal banking law.

(snip )

But the Federal Reserve plan proved to be a poor substitute for deregulation. By granting monopoly privileges to the Federal Reserve banks, it allowed them to inflate recklessly: By 1919, the US inflation rate, which had cleaved close to zero ever since the Civil War, was close to 20 percent! Yet the Fed was also capable of failing to supply enough money to avert crises. The first downturn over which it presided – that of 1921 – was among the sharpest in US history. Still it was nothing compared to the unprecedented monetary contraction of 1929-1933.

Would asset currency have been any better? Canada's was: Between 1929 and 1933, for instance, 6,000 US banks failed, and a third of the US money stock was wiped out. In contrast, and despite a fixed Canadian-US dollar exchange rate, Canada's money stock shrank by just 13 percent, and no Canadian bank failed.

While it's fun to consider the idea of abolishing the Federal Reserve (an idea that has kicked around on both the hard left and hard right over the years), I think anyone advocating this needs to admit that this would strike many Americans as being on a par with abolishing the FBI, simply because the Fed has been part of the national landscape for so long. On the other hand, most regular folks don't have a clear idea of what the Fed does all day, beyond setting interest rates. But, while the Fed seems permanent, it's important to remember that it is solely a creature of statute. There is no specific provision in the Constitution that allows for the creation of a central bank. Thus, the seemingly solid Fed could be legislated out of existence tomorrow if necessary (I don't think this should happen, but it could).

More disturbing is the question of what to do with our ever-increasing load of public debt. No matter how many times Paul Krugman might talk about multipliers and the like, our pojected debt is politically and financially unsustainable. Voters hate the idea of running huge deficits, and eventually, bond holders will refuse to continue to purchase US Treasuries. We could always cut spending and lower taxes, but that always manages to be "impossible." So, we are left with vague statements from policy makers about "keeping our options open," which mollify for a minute, but do nothing to settle the great unstated unease out there.

Some are already looking to the future to see what can be done. There is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's prediction that, in order for the US to escape it's massive debt load, it will need to either inflate its debt away, or default on our national debt. Given the domestic political turmoil that would follow hyperinflation, Hummel thinks that a default would be much more likely: Why Default on US Treasuries Is Likely

It is not literally impossible that the Federal Reserve could unleash the Zimbabwe option and repudiate the national debt indirectly through hyperinflation, rather than have the Treasury repudiate it directly. But my guess is that, faced with the alternatives of seeing both the dollar and the debt become worthless or defaulting on the debt while saving the dollar, the U.S. government will choose the latter. Treasury securities are second-order claims to central-bank-issued dollars. Although both may be ultimately backed by the power of taxation, that in no way prevents government from discriminating between the priority of the claims. After the American Revolution, the United States repudiated its paper money and yet successfully honored its debt (in gold). It is true that fiat money, as opposed to a gold standard, makes it harder to separate the fate of a government's money from that of its debt. But Russia in 1998 is just one recent example of a government choosing partial debt repudiation over a complete collapse of its fiat currency.

The cause of all this is not the the Iraq War or "de-regulation." It arises from a combination of the current economic depression, the Fed's bailouts, the incredible national debt racked up in the last year, and the implacable, vurtually unrestrained rise in entitlement spending. As in CA, there is a crisis of Big Government and the welfare state that is gathering, and may already be here:

A century of experience has taught us that the client-oriented, power-broker State is the gravity well toward which public choice drives both command and market economies. What will ultimately kill the welfare State is that its centerpiece, government-provided social insurance, is simultaneously above reproach and beyond salvation. Fully-funded systems could have survived, but politicians had little incentive to enact them, and much less incentive to impose the huge costs of converting from pay-as-you-go. Whether this inevitable collapse of social democracies will ultimately be a good or bad thing depends on what replaces them.

Hummel is talking about nothing less than the end of the political arrangements that have defined US politics since 1932. We may be a center-right country in theory, but in practice the liberal-left defines our government's spending priororties, and sets out the parameters of political debate. This is not something that will be resolved in 2012, nor is it something that Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin can cook up on the Internet. But, this is the project: to transfer out of our unsustainable welfare state to one that returns the federal government to its ideal low-tax, limited government state.

Adventure Hippies

Herb Caen used to say that there is always a local angle in any news story. Well, the local angle in the story about three Americans who have been detained in Iran is a doozy; the 3 are UC Berkeley grads on some sort of Extreme Internet Journalism Expedition. They are also, naturally, "idealists." Not that this will make the slightest bit of difference to their jailers: Detained US Hikers Described As Idealists

Three Americans whose disappearance in Iran has prompted concern from U.S. officials are idealistic UC Berkeley graduates whose interest in Middle Eastern culture and human rights led them abroad to study and do freelance journalism, friends and colleagues said today

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who are 27, once lived in the same Oakland co-op and taught a student-led class at Berkeley that envisioned a harmonious, postcapitalist society. Sarah Shourd, 30, describes herself on one Web site as a lover of "fresh broccoli, Zapatistas and anyone who can change her mind."

Normally, these are the sort of goofy progressives that I like to make fun of, but as they are presently in some trouble, I will simply note that they do not sound like the sort of people who would do well under prolonged detention in Iran. Bauer, for one, is the sort of person who - in the wake of 9/11 - decided to learn to speak Arabic and major in "peace studies" at UC Berkeley.

Bauer graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in 2007, earning a bachelor's degree with a major in peace and conflict studies and a minor in Arabic. He went to Sudan's Darfur region to research a thesis on the crisis there.

In a course on producing photo projects, Bauer's essay on residential hotels in San Francisco's Tenderloin was selected by classmates to appear on the cover of a magazine that featured the semester's best work, said Adjunct Professor Ken Light.

"He just had a natural sense of how to get inside a story, how to reach out to people," Light said. After graduating, Light said, "He chose to be kind of a foreign correspondent in the new age of journalism. You have to find stories people are interested in, that haven't been done, and that you can sell."

Shourd sounds like the sort of girl you can find all over the Bay Area; a Berkeley grad working with kids who has a touchingly naive view of other cultures and who is astonishingly well traveled (Yemen would not be my choice for vacation).

Shourd is described by those who know her as passionate about teaching, traveling and politics. After receiving a bachelor's degree in English in May 2003, she worked as a tutor with Americorps, a tutoring service in Berkeley and a charter elementary school in Oakland.

"She's a lovely person," said Lisa Miller, director of Classroom Matters in Berkeley, where Shourd tutored mostly middle-school students for about a year. "She's very devoted to making a difference in the lives of young people."

Shourd also worked as a freelance journalist, writing about the Middle East on political and travel Web sites. For a travel site, she wrote a story about Yemen titled "Brave Eyes, Laughing Hearts" about wearing a veil and joining a local family for a Ramadan celebration.

Fattal appears to be the most traditional hippie in this group. If and when he emerges from capaivity, we can expect that he will be blathering about the gentle poetic souls of the men who were holding him prisoner:

Fattal, who earned his bachelor's degree in environmental economics and policy, is a Pennsylvania native who recently worked and lived at a sustainable living research center in Oregon.

A friend, Emily Busch, 25, of San Francisco said Fattal founded a class in spring 2005 called "Liberation and reality: moving toward a collective autonomy" through UC Berkeley's student-run DeCal program.

Liberation and Reality? Moving Toward a Collective Autonomy? Send this guy to Qom immediately! He will keep the mullahs tied up in philosophical "dialogue" until the Islamic Republic falls of its own accord.

Along with the North Korea 2, the Iran 3 represent the second set of Bay Area connected young adults who have been forcibly detained by a regime that is hostile to the US. In both cases, the detainees were hip, citizens of the world who made the elementary mistake of crossing over the border into a country that (1) would not be happy to see them (2) is paranoid about espionage and CIA plots and (3) has long practiced hostage taking as a diplomatic weopon.

Most people reading this probably think these folks are naive, but I would say their problem is their ignorance. Surprising as it may seem, the fraught, decades-long hostilities between the US and countries like Iran, North Korea, and Cuba is largely unknown to the under-30 crowd in general*. For people educated in "peace studies" and the like, their ignorance is compounded by their education, which emphasises US "oppression," rather than the tyrrannical, war-like posture of our enemies. We can only hope that these three survive an experience for which their backgrounds have left them woefully unprepared.

*starting about 10 years ago, I started meeting undergrads who had no idea that there had been an Iranian hostage crisis, the central drama between the US and Iran, and the basic reason why many in the US feel an instinctive hostility toward Iran. Yes, I blame our lousy public schools and superficial MSM for this state of ignorance.

Business Lit

Here's a peculiar article that ran on the front-page of the NY Times Sunday Business section. It claims to be about BB&T chairman John Allison IV, but it's really an extended critique of Ayn Rand. As Rand has had a mini-resurgence since the commencement of Obamanomics, this could not be allowed to stand.

BB&T has survived the chaos of the last year, although it did accept TARP money at the specific request of Hank Paulson, who wanted to bailout Citibank, but did not want to give the appearance of having done so. Allison has retired as BB&T's CEO, and is now barn storming the country denouncing the Wall Street Bailouts and spreading the message of Randian Objectivism. He may be the most prominent person in public life who is speaking to the great unease many feel about the increased corporatization of government, and the increased nationalization of the corporate sector.

If Mr. Allison’s speech sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who celebrated the virtues of reason, self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism while maintaining that altruism is a destructive force. In Ms. Rand’s world, nothing is more heroic — and sexy — than a hard-working businessman free to pursue his wealth. And nothing is worse than a pesky bureaucrat trying to restrict business and redistribute wealth.Or, as Mr. Allison explained, “put balls and chains on good people, and bad things happen.”

Ms. Rand, who died in 1982, has all sorts of admirers on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms and in the entertainment industry, including the hedge fund manager Clifford Asness, the former baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and the Whole Foods chief executive, John Mackey.

But Mr. Allison, who remains BB&T’s chairman after retiring as chief executive in December, has emerged as perhaps the most vocal proponent of Ms. Rand’s ideas and of the dangers of government meddling in the markets. For a dedicated Randian like him, the government’s headlong rush to try to rescue and fix the economy is a horrifying realization of his worst fears.

Indeed, so many bad things are happening that many followers of Ms. Rand, known as objectivists, believe that the ugly scenario in her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” — in which the government takes over industry as the economy progressively collapses — is playing out in real life.

I'll be honest here: despite many years' worth of comments that I would "really love" Ayn Rand, I have never felt any great need to read her books. She was famously "read out" of the conservative movement by Whittaker Chambers decades ago. I think there's something to the critique that her philosophy encourages a sort of grasping selfishness. Mostly, she strikes me as the sort of writer that most people read and love in college, and I am no longer in college.

Nonetheless, I can understand why so many businesspeople and political conservatives find her appealing. If you are looking for a serious, literary exploration of conservative themes, you will find very little in 20th century literature that is satisfactory. 20th & 21st century literature, indeed virtually all serious art from the past 100 years, is almost uniformly liberal or progressive in its orientation. You literally have to go back to Trollope, Tolstoy and (especially) Dostoyevsky* to find the greatest conservative fiction. It's very easy to get a liberal arts education in a typical American college and have at least a passing familiarity with leftist thought, but not once hear the names Burke, Hayek, Rand, etc. in a classroom setting.

The NY Times, of course, goes out of its way to denigrate Rand, trotting out the usual philosophy pundit to give the reliable conventional wisdom that Rand was not a "real" philosopher.

The enduring popularity of Ms. Rand bewilders her many detractors, who complain that her writing is melodramatic, heavy-handed and intellectually bereft.

“To describe her as a minor figure in the history of philosophical thinking about knowledge and reality would be a wild overstatement,” says Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago. “She’s irrelevant.”

Professor Leiter conducted an informal poll in March on his philosophy blog, asking, “Which person do you most wish the media would stop referring to as a ‘philosopher’?” The choices were Jacques Derrida, Ms. Rand and Leo Strauss. Ms. Rand won by a landslide, with 75 percent of the roughly 1,500 votes cast.

Professor Leiter says Ms. Rand’s views on moral philosophy and objective reality are “simple-minded in the extreme.”

“She doesn’t understand the historical positions of thinkers on these issues, such as Hume and Kant,” he says. “Even the minority of philosophers with some sympathy for her celebration of the virtues of selfishness usually find her general philosophical system embarrassing.”

That is pure intellectual snobbery in action. I agree that Hume and Kant are deeper thinkers than Rand, but have read enough Kant to state categorically (hee hee) that he has little, if anything, to offer to the average businessman looking for the consolation of philosophy. Rand, on the other hand, is just what the doctor ordered. Is she perfect? Of course not. But a person who is naturally inclined to a pro-business, limited government position has to make a real effort to find contemporary literary or intellectual works that speak to his interests. Rand, at least, has the virtue of having been a best-selling author with a well-developed system of thought. The shame is not that people are reading Rand; it's that there is an unspoken cultural embargo against conservative thought, such that someone like Rand is the only conservative writer that the average person is likely to have heard of.

*one of the best kept secrets of literature is Dostoyevsky's conservatism, which is present in virtually all of his great works. Famed literary critic Laura Bush is one of the few people who have discussed this publicly.

Swamping the Lifeboats

In an article about the cuts in CA's budget, the reporter lets slip with a statistic that, more than any other, captures the unintended consequences of CA's ostensibly generous social safety net. State's Long Spending Spree Halted Abruptly

California has added social welfare programs, like Healthy Families in 1998 to provide health insurance for children that do not qualify for Medi-Cal. That program took a major hit in the budget cuts this year - about $178 million - and health advocates said it will result in about half-a-million children losing the insurance.

Still, the state has more people on welfare than anywhere else in the nation. Thirty-two percent of people receiving welfare in the United States are in California, (emphasis added) according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"What we've done is created incentives for people to move here just to take part in the generous social safety net," said UC Davis' Yetman.

CA's population, in case you wondered, is approximately 35 million, which is roughly 10% of the population of the US. What a deal. While other states have been competing for business and entrepreneurs, CA has been accepting everyone else's welfare rolls. Everyone else in the West is hanging "Open for Business" signs, while we are saying "Freeloaders Welcome!" (I think we can assume that a significant percentage of those receiving welfare from CA are illegal immigrants, but that number is a closely guarded secret that, if known, would result in some sort of popular uprising against the welfare state and open borders)

The draconian spending cuts decried by the "for the children" crowd have resulted in a drop of per capita state spending equal to what CA was disbursing in 1998 (oh, the humanity!), which means we could cut a lot more without causing the mass starvation and homelessness that supposedly lurks behind every social service budget cut.

The CA budget crisis has been a crisis of Big Government, not a crisis of CA's supposedly polarized electorate. Behind the fine-sounding words of "helping" the weakest among us lies a massive redistribution of wealth, not to native Californians, but to anyone who could manage to make their way here, whether from Nevada, Pennsylvania or Mexico. To be blunt, CA and its voters owe these people nothing. Moreover, CA doesn't even need to be doing this. There are federal welfare programs that can provide the bare minimum for someone to eat and sleep. The welfar reform express obviously passed CA by, but there's plenty of time to catch up and remove this dead weight from the state's budget.

On Our Way Home

Today is a Free Will travel day. Posting resumes tomorrow.

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