Saturday, August 17, 2002

Terminus News. Ladies and gentlemen, your humble blogger is umemployed. Yesterday was my last day on the job, and soon, I'll be setting off for law school. It's a slightly daunting prospect, I can tell you, as I've been out of school for three years, and it's going to be quite an adjustment to get back into it again. But I'm looking forward to it very much.

So what will this mean for the blog. Well, not much, really. It's possible the output will drop from time to time, but it shouldn't be much different from usual. In fact, I hope I'll be able to do some blogging from school (not during class, obviously, but when I have down time). I just got a laptop which I will have with me at all times, so I may decide to take a break from studying and do a little blogging.

More interesting to me is how this might affect the content of the blog. I'm not sure, but its possible that things could change a bit. I mean, this whole enterprise is really just a narcissistic, ego-driven need to talk to people about the subjects that interest me most. So, if my interests change, or are re-prioritized by law school, then I would expect to see that reflected here too.

Anyway, it's a fascinating new stage of my life I'm entering into, and I looking forward to sharing it with you as it happens.
Bush Considers More Corporate Tax Breaks. Proves my point. This is unbelievable. Does anyone think that eliminating double taxation of dividends will help the economy? If so, please explain how. As far as I can see it, it will let rich people get richer, it will not trickle down to anyone (except the butler, who might get a larger Christmas bonus this year), it will hurt a budget that Bush has already deep-sixed (which this week he suddenly decided to start caring about... that lasted all of four days). This is what Republicans need to understand, and probably already do: if you want to help the economy (they don't), you should give tax breaks to people who don't have much money, because those people will spend it as soon as they get. They'll spend it on food, clothing, general consumer goods. Give them the money, and they will drive consumer spending, and consumer spending will keep this country going. Then, after a time, the businesses who are receiving this consumer spending will start thinking about expansion, which means hiring, which means lower unemployment, which means higher tax revenues. Look, now we're reducing the deficit, and that wasn't even our goal. Wow!

If you don't want to help the economy (they don't), you give money to people who already have lots of money. They will put that money in the bank, and then the federal government will borrow it from that bank to pay for last year's tax cut. That won't trickle anywhere.

You, I actually agree with that old conservative chestnut about trusting people, not the government. You know the one: "I trust people to spend their money the way they think is best". That's pretty empty rhetoric, mostly devoid of meaning, but it does point the way forward. As long as you're giving the money to people who will spend it, then it's worth whatever short-term deficits you have to incur. But cutting taxes on dividends is a boondoggle. It's pork for rich people and corporations. It is not a tax policy.
War and Tax Cuts. Hmm, Frank Rich is all over the map in today's column in the New York Times. But the point he makes most strongly is that Bush really only has two policy priorities, what Rich calls "core beliefs". These are 1) continue to cut the taxes of the wealthiest Americans, and 2) remove from power Saddam Hussein. He is invulnerable to criticism on both points, and I expect him to keep pushing on both of them for as long as he remains in power.

Think about it. Bush bet his entire candidacy on the Huge Bush Tax Cut for the Wealthy plan (which was conceived originally as a reward for having such a great economy, then as a way to keep the economy from going south, and then as a way to boost the economy after it had gone down.... three goals, one tax policy). No, he's betting his reelection on invading Iraq. I think the main reason there's such a big push for this is because of a massive mis-reading of history.

The CW in Republican circles is that there are two things which can explain the embarrassing defeat og George H. W. Bush in 1992, raising taxes, and not getting Saddam. While the second one may actually have been a mistake, we've only come to know it in hindsight. I don't blame Bush I for screwing that up at all. The objective was to liberate Kuwait, not to remove Saddam Hussein, and a decision was made to stop short, which may have turned out to be wrong. But that's Monday morning quarterbacking, so I'm going to let it go.

As far as the tax cut, Republicans keep making the same bone-headed error again and again. Bush I's mistake was not raising taxes, it was promising not too. That's stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. Why deny yourself a useful policy tool? What happens when conditions change, and suddenly, your economic advisors are reccommending you use the policy tool you promised not to use. What happens? You lose re-election, dumb ass. I still can't wrap my head around the sheer stupity of that empty, meaningless vow. Whoever wrote that line into that speech should be forced to write the screenplay to "Dude, Where's My Car? 2".

So, those two mistakes have become the be all and the end all of Bush's core policy beliefs. Everything else, everything else, every single thing else, is so much Rovian political gamesmanship. You know, some people say Bush is dumb, and some say he's not dumb, but he wants us to think he is. I don't know if he's dumb or not, but he's empty.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Republicans Caution Against Invading Iraq. This is the best news I've heard all week. Some Republican heavies, like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, have come down on the side of not invading Iraq, and they've come down pretty hard. Leaving aside the bigger picture and focusing, for a moment, on the insular and endlessly self-referential world of blogging, this really must be a thorn in the side of the so-called warbloggers.

Speaking for myself, it's like a wonderful breath of fresh air to hear Republicans like Scowcroft and Kissinger, never to be thought of as "doves", coming down clearly on the side of reason. Let's make this clear, just because Hussein is a bad guy, an evil dictator, and, in some vague and nebulous sense, a threat, does not give the U.S. carte blanche to take him out. There's got to be more to it than that. Now, the Bush Administration talks about having evidence of specific threats, and what have you, but we don't know anything about that. I don't just mean me (I mean, who the hell am I, right?), but apparently, even Republicans in Congress like Dick Armey haven't heard this killer evidence, nor have close allies like Tony Blair.

I just hope that this emboldens Democrats to stand up and cry "foul" like they should. I'll repeat, I have nothing in principle against invading Iraq, but the case has not been made (and I suspect that there is no case to make, or else that wouldn't be true). We have a guy like Bush who is chomping at the bit to invade a sovereign nation without direct provocation. We need the minority party to step and say "No! America does not do that!" We'll see what happens when Congress comes back in September.

Oh, the New York Times article on these developments is here.
Krugman is Talking Down the Economy for Political Gain! Once again, that dastardly Paul Krugman is trying to convince good, hard-working Americans like us that the economy is in the crapper, in the hope that economic pessimism will return the Democrats to Congressional controol. Well, my friends, I'm here to tell you that it's all fine, the economy is good, the fundamentals are strong, everything is terrific. It's just taking our economy a little longer that we thought to re-cover from the binge of the 90s, which was entirely the fault of one man: Bill Clinton.

If the preceding paragraph isn't one of the dumbest things you've ever heard in your life, you won't want to read today's Krugman.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

Cohen on Coulter. Richard Cohen takes on Coulter's latest work of political fiction in a Washington Post editorial today. The column speaks for itself, and makes some very good points, but I want to draw your attention to one salient fact.

Cohen mentions in the column that he was one of the targets of the book. Compare that to many of the right-wing "refutations" of David Brock's book, which were written by people who were criticized by Brock, but did not reveal that very salient fact.

Note that in principle, it doesn't matter whether or not the reviewer is personally targetted by the book under review. I am confident that Cohen would feel just the same about Coulter's book if he were not in it. But it's important that the readers know that this review may have a vested interest in slamming the book. Cohen is up-front about that, which shows integrity. Cheers.
Demosthenes Has the Power. Whoo-boy! Demosthenes from Shadow of the Hegemon gave me a link today, along with some kind words, and my traffic has upped considerably. Thanks for that. Welcome to all of the new faces (not that I can see your faces, obviously, but... uh... nevermind), and I hope you find something of interest. Please feel free to comment or email.

On the topic of my links list, there are a bunch of blogs I've found lately that I haven't gotten around to linking in yet. Look for those very shortly. Among those will be Demosthenes's site, because I like it a lot (I don't care if Tapped thinks it's hard to read, it's worth the effort). Likewise, there's a lot of other great stuff out there that I will be linking shortly, so stay tuned.

Oh, and one last note to new readers.... I hope you like Bond films.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Herbert is a Treaure. Bob Herbert has another column in tomorrow's New York Times spotlighting some of the egregious miscarriages of justice that often happen to people who are poor and/or black. There's no comment to make, just read the piece.
This Springsteen Flap. Thanks to Eschaton, I found a rip-roaring discussion over at Jane Galt's blog about this whole Gore/Springsteen concert ticket business. [Full disclosure: I was, in my younger days, a big Ayn Rand fan. I got better.] Well, I got embroiled in the debate, and you can decide for yourselves how I did, but I wanted to take the opportunity to make a point about accusations.

The way our media works, it isn't always necessary for people to lie in order to get a falsehood to be widely believed. Take a look at Josh Marshall's account of how Bush's economic summit went yesterday. Josh makes the point that the White House got slammed in the press merely because press accounts asked whether or not it was a sham. Note that closely. Merely because the papers raise the issue of it possibly being a sham, the White House takes the political hit for it being a sham.

What's wrong with that? you say. Nothing, of course. It was a sham. But it means that you don't have to prove your case in order to deal a political blow to your opponent. You only have to make a case, and have it be picked up by other media outlets. And so with the Springsteen ticket story. Someone, we don't know who, told Foxnews.com. From there, it went to Drudge, and to Lloyd Grove in the Washington Post (the same pair, by the way, who covered the highly suspicious David Brock mental institution story). Now, this story is getting bigger. People are talking about it, and soon, it will be absorbed, as though by osmosis, into the collective impression of "Gore-as-liar/phony/hypocrite/bad dresser".

And it's totally baseless.

That's what happens. There's nothing you can do but be vigilant. Be skeptical of the received wisdom of the press. When you see a blogger flogging this story (even, as Jane did, to downplay it), don't let it stand. Saying "I don't know whether it happened or not" is not much different from saying "It happened." That's the idea, that's why these smears work.

It's an uphill battle, though. As I said in Jane's comments section, because the accuser is anonymous, because there is no publically available evidence to evaluate, the story is debunk proof. As Jane says, it's "he said - she said". That's why it works. That's why they do it.

And remember, when the next one of these anti-Gore stories comes out: they hate him, and they fear him, because he's the biggest threat in 2004.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Desperation is Showing. Bush says he's optimistic about the long-term health of the American economy, according to this New York Times article. Do you know anyone who isn't? Seriously, think about it. Long-term health? I have absolutely no concerns about that at all.

It's the short-term that has me worried. Not just me, either. The Federal Reserve downgraded their economic outlook today, but didn't lower interest rates. [Incidentally, did anyone catch Steve Forbes, Robert Reich, and Jim Kramer on Hardball tonight. It was a hoot! Forbes was upset that the Fed didn't cut rates, and he was arguing that the Huge Bush Tax Cut for the Wealthy of 2001 should be accelerated and made permanent. The other panelists, and even Matthews himself, simply dismissed him. It was priceless.]

Anyway, the whole economic forum thing is a complete sham, and has been admirably reported as such by the mainstream press (kudos). The upshot of the whole thing is that 1) the economy is not doing very well just now, but 2) the fundamentals are sound, and 3) no government action is needed to turn it around. What concerns me is that the Democrats aren't advancing much in the way of alternative policy options. I mean, here we have this perfect opening: a weak economy combined with a White House which refuses to do anything about it. The Democrats need to advance some kind of plan as an alternative. There are potentially huge political gains in this.

The trouble is, I'm actually inclined to agree that there's nothing the White House can do at this point, and that everything will turn around sooner or later. Trouble is, as Max Sawicky points out aften, this doesn't do much of anything to help those who have lost their jobs. That's why I think that the Democrats should push for a more comprehensive unemployment insurance structure. Sure, the Republicans will whine about the cost of it, and given that the country has plunged headlong back into deficit spending. That's fine. It's because of the tax cut, largely, that we're in such deficit trouble, so Democrats could use that as a means of attacking the tax cut both as policy (a year after it passed, the economy is worse) and as politics (favoring giveaways to the wealthy at the expense of real, unemployed Americans).

Besides, given that this whole economic summit thing is just a desperate ploy to make people think Bush is on top of the situation when he's really doing nothing at all, wouldn't it be good for the Democrats to show people what getting on top of the situation really looks like, rather than just whining about not being invited to the meeting?

Who's with me?
The Bond Project: Update. Ed Hill, from Ed's Daily Rant, has posted his review of Dr. No. Check it out.
Do the Minnesota Greens Get It? According to this article (with thanks to The Hamster, or I'd never have seen it), it looks like they may. Of course, the controversy here is that Minnesota is the site for a huge Senate race between liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone (one of the few true liberals in Congress) and Republican Norm Coleman. The White House is pushing Coleman big time, as they are desperate to get rid of Wellstone (and, if that wins the Senate back for them, so much the better). As of now, the two are in a pretty tight race. The trouble is that the Minnesota Green Party has decided to field a candidate, Ed McGaa, who is decidedly less progressive that Wellstone.

Yes, that's right. McGaa, a Green, is a worse Green than Wellstone, a Democrat. Doesn't that just tell you everything you need to know about the Greens?

Still, I do have some sympathy for the position the Minnesota Greens are in. I mean, Greens all across the country are trying to grow their party to the level of a viable third party, which is difficult (to put it mildly). Every election is chance to build momentum in a particular state or district. They have every right to field a candidate, if they so choose, and it's not really their responsibility if that candidate turns out to be a spoiler. Many would disagree with me on that last point, but that's where I stand.

But the other side of the coin is that, while Greens have little love for the Democrats, the Republicans are far more actively and ideologically hostile to the Green agenda. Moreover, Wellstone is actively and ideologically sympathetic to the Green agenda. If I were a Minnesotan Green, I would absolutely vote for Wellstone, especially given the high stakes this election has for the Senate. Honestly, I can't imagine why a progressive of any or no party affiliation would want to vote for McGaa. He simply doesn't have the progressive credentials that Wellstone has, he has no chance at all of winning, and his candidacy could result in a Coleman victory. But, that isn't my call to make.

The difficulty here lies in balancing the regional interests of the Minnesota Green Party with the national interests of progressives in general. This is a case where, as my friends often say, the Green party should "take one for the team", the team being progressivism at large. I think the Greens would be well served if they ignored actual party affiliations and just proceeded on the assumption that Wellstone was one of them, regardless of the letter appearing next to his name. Wellstone, whether Democrat, Independent, or anything, is a great progressive candidate with a great progressive record. He deserves the Green vote, and I hope Nader and others will actively campaign for him to get it.

Monday, August 12, 2002

The Bond Project: From Russia With Love. The second entry in the venerable Bond franchise is highly unusual by today's standards, but most likely would have felt very familiar to viewers at the time who had seen Dr. No. While many of the elements we currently associate with Bond were either absent or significantly different from what we're used to, it's clear that the production team took pains to create a feeling of familiarity, that similarity of tone and style that is necessary for any franchise to be successful. In the first several minutes alone, viewers are bombarded by references to the previous film, including both recurring characters and snippets of dialogue which acknowledge the previous adventure. For audiences at the time, this would be a kind of comfortable familiarity. For audiences today, this is extremely jarring, because Bond films, with very rare exceptions, simply do not overtly refer back to their predecessors.

The back-references are worth noting. Of course, we have the recurring characters of M, Moneypenny, and Major Boothroyd (although it's unlikely that anyone would realize he was a recurring character). Also, Sylvia Trench, a character intended to be Bond's "steady girlfriend", appearing in every film, whose romantic designs were foiled by yet another call from the "office". Sylvia makes several references to events of the first film, including mentioning Jamaica and golf. But there are also some more subtle similarities. The scene where Bond gets off the plane in Istanbul is very reminiscent of the corresponding scene set in Jamaica. Indeed, Bond has learned his lesson from Jamaica and established a spoken code to make sure the contact he is meeting is legitimate.

But this film is far more than just a cookie-cutter retread of the original. First of all, it's got double the budget, which shows (though it's still far less spectacular than what we've become accustomed too, which ends up hurting the film significantly... more on that below). Second of all, it's got a far more interesting story. As you'll recall, major story weaknesses are what held back Dr. No, and this film compensates (or, arguably, overcompenstates) by presenting a very richly storied suspense thriller.

The story centers on SPECTRE setting up a conflict between Bond and the Russians in a devious and complicated attempt to steal a Russian Lektor, which is an advanced Soviet encryption device. Rather than the "typical" mal-formed psychotic megalomaniacal deviant, the villain is a suave, intelligent, cunning assassin named Grant, who is in many ways Bond's equal. This, combined with the fact that the franchise hadn't yet gone in for the more fantastical aspects we would soon come to expect, makes for an unusually realistic, and therefore unusually dramatic film. This is one Bond film, perhaps the only one, that functions on the level of suspense, rather than simply action.

However, in this case, it is the plot which lets the narrative down. Grant directly and intentionally provokes Russians, precipitating a major flare-up in the relations between the eastern and western intelligence forces in Istanbul. It is unclear what this is intended to accomplish, but it does force Grant to take the fascinating position of having to protect Bond's life. After all, if the Russians manage to kill Bond before he steals the Lektor, than SPECTRE will never get it themselves. This is the one part of Kronstein's otherwise devious plan which doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Kronstein told Number One that every possible countermove had been considered, and he guaranteed SPECTRE's success, but by creating a "hot" conflict in Instanbul, SPECTRE relies inordinantly on Grant's ability to keep Bond alive. While this is not the mistake which brings about SPECTRE's defeat, it is indicative of the weakness of Kronstein's plan.

More importantly, it is at the heart of the major structural weakness of the plot itself. The audience known from the outset that SPECTRE is the true villain. From then on, it's just a matter of waiting for Bond to catch up, and we wait an awfully long time. A vast portion of the film, then, is rendered irrelevant even before it has occurred. Oddly, however, the film still seems to be setting up the Russians as the villains of the piece. The end result is that a huge proportion of the plot is spent on a red-herring that is exposed before Bond ever leaves England, which makes for rather uninteresting viewing.

The reason for this egregious error in plotting is no doubt the fact that the script underwent massive revisions at a very late stage. If SPECTRE's involvement was as much of a surprise to the audience as it was to Bond (an idea which may have been incorporated into an earlier draft), than the sequences with Kerim Bey and the Russians wouldn't have seemed so irrelevant. [On the other hand, regardless of how the film is structured, the scene with the Gypsies fighting serves no legitimate story function.] Despite this serious flaw, the film picks up enormously when Bond successfully steals the Lektor and begins to make his escape via the Orient Express. This is where the meat of the story really takes hold, and ingenuity of the set-up gets its pay-off.

Indeed, it's also more of a strength, here, that the audience is in on the big secret. Bond and Grant spend a significant amount of time on screen together before Grant's true motives are revelaed to Bond. If we, like Bond, believed Grant to be a British agent, these scenes would have been unforgiveably tedious. Because we know he is working for SPECTRE and is after the Lektor, this slow, patient sequence is imbued with a chilling level of suspense. The director does a masterful job of keeping the pace down in this segment, allowing the tension to build very gradually and very effectively. The climactic struggle in the cabin of the train is the dramatic payoff of all of this tension and suspense, and it works beautifully.

Sadly, there is still quite a lot of tedious plot to plow through, despite the fact that the story has now basically concluded. Having failed, Kronstein is executed, and SPECTRE must try to recover the Lektor by other means. [Kronstein's plan ended up relying too heavily on Grant's ability to fool Bond... I think Grant was enjoying being a secret agent a little too much, and allowed himself to squander the element of surprise.] This leads to what would be, in a future Bond with a bigger budget, a tremendous series of spectacular action set-pieces. Unfortunately, the helicopter and boat sequences are less than spectacular, and the patient yet fascinating atmosphere of suspense is replaced with hurried yet tedious action sequences. Finally, the last desperate battle between Rosa Klebb and 007 is simply not an adequate dramatic highpoint on which to end the film, and the lasting impression is one of an enjoyable yet uneven action film.

The bottom line: the second film in the series was a significant improvement on the confused muddle of the original, and it showed an ambition toward making espionage thrillers of true depth. However, its flaws are serious enough that they can't be easily dismissed. In any case, this unusually realistic, gritty, and adult portrayal of Bond would be rendered obsolete with the release of the first true Bond film.

UPDATE: Ed's take on this film can be found here. The Bond Project continues with Goldfinger.
What 2002 Really Means For 2004. There's no doubt that the Congressional midterm elections are of vital importance to the Presidential race in 2004. If the Democrats pick up even two or three seats in the Senate and manage to eke out a victory in the House, this will have huge ramification for the Bush agenda. And the Bush agenda is going to be a central issue in the 2004 campaign.

But David Broder in yesterday's Washington Post reminds us that the really important races are the various gubernatorial races across the country. The party which controls a particular state's Governorship has a tremendous opportunity to support their own Presidential candidate. Obviously, the extreme example of this is Florida 2000, but more generally, governors are able to mobilize their state parties, raise money, coordinate get-out-the-vote campaigns, and utilize the press much more effectively. Thus, having a political ally in the Governor's Mansion is a huge boon to getting that state's electoral votes.

And we all know how important electoral votes are. "Dean" Broder helpfully reminds us.

He also refocuses our attention on the truly important states to watch. While most of the press is obsessed with Florida, Texas, and California (three big states with really fascinating races), these aren't the ones that really matter, according to Broder (though he does briefly discuss California, before dismissing it). The important states are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio. Of those, he says, only Ohio looks particularly promising for Bush.

It's very important to keep these technical issues in mind, especially with all the anti-Gore bias continuing to cloud the airwaves. Watch those midterms, and while you're celebrating the Democratic domination of Congress, don't forget to keep an eye on those governorships. And if the Democrats manage to win governorships in some of those key states (like Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan, where they are currently favored), understand and remember what a huge boost that is.