Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day! (Some Restrictions Apply)

Today was Earth Day, a holiday I generally try to avoid; such manufactured holidays always smack of obnoxious pretentiousness, unless then agenda of said fake holiday is to encourage the eating of pie. Then, I am mostly in favor of it.

Anyway, I dislike Earth Day because it encapsulates everything I hate about the environmentalist movement. Despite my radical free marketeer status, I'm not wholly against the environment; in fact, I think the few admitted failures of the free market tie in quite nicely with what environmentalists critique about it. The concept of externalities--a cost (or, technically, a benefit) that has to be borne by someone who is not the person who reaps the benefit*--pertains almost perfectly with air and water pollution. Likewise, many environmentalist causes involve things in which it is very, very difficult to set a rational price on--things such as endangered species--to the point where everyone involved needs to chill the eff out.

Still, these aren't without their problems. I am, pretty much by definition, a cruel, black-hearted economist , so I'll list exactly the reason why I really can't call myself an environmentalist:

1. Environmentalists don't like to think about trade-offs, even though everyone in the room agrees that it's the only way to make things work. No one likes to think about the fact that we're willing to value a certain number of rainforest acres plowed or dolphins mulched quantified in how much richer it will make us. Environmentalists will say that nothing--nothing--is worth losing vital acreage or even just one tuna to the sea, but that just isn't reasonable. The argument will never, ever be about eliminating anything. If we wanted to stop respiratory disease, we could stop carcinogen pollutants right now--but we would also slice our national income by about 90%. (Also, hope you like living in the third world.) We don't want to think that we're just trying to find the right line in the sand between environmentalism and money, but that is really what we are doing. And there's nothing wrong with this. We all make life-and-death trade-offs every day; you can decrease your change of dying in a car wreck effectively to zero by never leaving your house, but no one will ever suggest this is wise. So it is with the environment. To deny this, or cover it up with code words, is counterproductive.
2. The "Little Things" you do to save the Earth really don't matter. I'm not saying they are completely useless, but at this stage of the game when climate change** is on the radar only huge leaps in technology are really going to help. We need a car engine that runs off of water, not a brick in the toilet tank to cut down on a few gallons of water waste. Obviously some things help more than others, but people tend to focus on the easy, simple things that really don't impact the environment all that much. The worst part is that most people will use the small, easy things as a substitute for real action; by feeling good when you toss that bottle in the recycling bin, you have "done your part" and thus don't think twice about paying 10% less on a normal item instead of the greener one. To be fair, there are a lot of so-called "little things" that certainly might help--offhand, the idea of "smart" appliances seems like it will help--but those are just as much about saving money as they are saving the earth.
3. The "failings" of the free market are usually just a crutch with which to hang microsocialism.There is a reason why a lot of environmentalists are called "watermelons"***--green on the outside, red on the inside. Often, an environmentalist movement is really just a ploy not to necessarily save the environment (although I'm sure that is a goal as well), but more importantly to stick it to the rich guys. The failings that I mentioned on the first paragraph--externalities and all that--are valid failings, but it only explains so much. Sadly, it's then much easier to stretch those failings to cover a wide swath of complaints. I wish this was just my usual level of paranoia talking, but there are plenty of examples of poorly-implemented regulations that do little to save the Earth and more to make it more difficult to run a business. If you don't think that's on the agenda of at least some of the movement, you haven't been paying attention.

While I, myself, consider myself to be sympathetic to the environment, I know full well most environmentalists would laugh me out of their little club. I care very, very little about the small picture because I don't think it does any good--there are too many substitute behaviors that the net impact is practically invisible, and the big-ticket items are coming (but not for a while, and at great expense). I think there are plenty of perfectly reasonable solutions that are compatible for both the free market and the environment, but they require a certain level of...finesse that the government is not known for.

The Pledge: There's nothing wrong with saving the planet. Just don't be a chump about it.

*As always, I apologize to the economists out there--I realize this definition is sloppy and watered down, but y'all get the point.
**There's a part of me that things changing the focus from "global warming" to "climate change" is a sketchy way of covering up the fact that scientists still don't know everything, and that's bad for selling climate change to the world. For the record, I think climate change is a thing, but I'm not sure we know the reasons why, nor do we know all of the effects. (I don't have a lot of confidence given how often and quickly the details have changed even in the last ten years.) How this translates into what I support in public policy, I have no idea.
**Well, I do, anyway.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Accidental Folk Song Singer-Songwriters

I am not a huge fan of socially aware music. I realize that this is an awkward sort of thing to dislike, but so far in my life I have never heard any music that has the express purpose of advancing social causes actually be any good.

Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not talking about most of the folk music and protest songs from the 1960's. Most of the classics we hear today at least make an attempt at being subtle, or at the very least tried to be more than just a bumper sticker. Even the scratchy, poorly designed arrangements of Bob Dylan or the melodic inanities of Joni Mitchell were self-aware enough to sell themselves as a movement in and of itself, even if the bill of sale was placid, useless statements about we shouldn't be such dickwads to the Viet Cong. It may have made Woodie Guthrie--and his audience--feel good by claiming that his guitar kills fascists, but sadly only high caliber bullets ended up doing so.

But, yes, I get the point--to borrow a phrase, winning over the hearts and minds of the population is the best weapon to never start a war in the first place. Still, the days of the protest song are long gone, and attempts to replicate this over the past two or three decades have been embarrassingly bad. Whether we are talking about Michael Jackson's frying-pan-to-the-face appeal in Black or White or the sad gospel misfire We Shall Be Free by Garth Brooks--since the one person who could change race relations in this country together is apparently a stern-sounding Craig T. Nelson--it's very, very difficult to pull off a song without coming off as a preachy, pretentious idiot.

Even some bands that have forged their identity around their politics--think Rage Against the Machine or, to a lesser extent, Green Day--the act gets old pretty fast. The fans certainly like it, but if all you are doing is titillating the converted you are more or less just laughing all the way to the bank. And I'm willing to concede that the impressionable young minds, of whom most popular music is aimed anyway, certainly can benefit for some positive reinforcement. But shoehorning in a message like a two-part Full House very rarely brings the muse and it is extremely rare that it produces good music. So-called "classic" songs, mostly from the Vietnam protest era such as Eve of Destruction or Tin Soldiers, often sound more like novelty songs curious for their historical context but rarely because of their social impact or melodic prowess. The sad fact is that a three-minute song is never going to replace a national debate about the war or be a stand-in for a dining room discussion about gay marriage.

If you want to see a somewhat contemporary song that fits the bill, it's not that hard. Regardless of what you think of the Dixie Chicks or their message, Travelin' Solder was a reasonably effective critique of the Iraq War without sounding angry or condescending. (It's also a very beautiful song as well.) While it might not seem like it now--since there are no direct references to that war in the song--it was a lament and a cautionary tale that the consequences of war cannot be ignored, especially in the small towns presumably supportive of the military effort. And it was released before the Dixie Chicks came out vocally for the war, and yet audiences ate it up. (It was still the promoted single from their album when the controversy hit, and so subsequently tumbled from the charts.)

The catalyst for this particular thought, of course, is Accidental Racist, a extraordinarily clueless song by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. It advertises itself as a let's-all-get-together-and-learn-from-our-differences polemic set to an unholy shitty country-rap fusion, but just sort of comes off as an apologia for redneck stubbornness. I actually don't have much of an opinion of the song itself--it handwaves away a century of slavery (no, we don't own slaves now, but there's an entrenched legacy that can't simply be ignored), but pinning all the troubles onto a flag misses the point of social change (racism will still happen, the stars and bars or not). So we are back to square one: nothing will happen with one pop-country song except a whole lot of embarrassment and TV-pundit navalgazery.
The Pledge: While there are a few exceptions, the best mind-changing songs aren't trying to be mind-changing songs; their strength is in their subtly and their craft. Songs that are poorly disguised after-school specials usually end up doing more harm than good.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, passed away today.

As with all political figures, Thatcher was a complicated leader. It's been quite in fashion for modern-day Britons who were born after she took power to saddle her with negativity, but it is extraordinarily difficult to remember her time.

Thatcher came into power in 1979. Labour had been in power for the past decade or so (less a reasonably short term by Conservative Edward Heath). Trade unions had crippled the economy with ongoing strikes, both unemployment and inflation was high, the IRA was causing endless trouble in Northern Ireland; and the British Empire was, for all intents and purposes, in ruins. Per capita GDP was less than Italy's, an embarrassment for the once-proud nation.

Of course, those who remember know that there was a similar situation in the United States; the 1970's was a sick decade where not much good occurred. Stagflation (high unemployment and high inflation, long thought in economic circles to be highly unlikely to have at the same time) has made the economy a wreck, frequent oil strikes caused transportation to grind to a halt, and the previous government's actions (under both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) ended up making things worse. However, believe it or not, America's economy was much more robust to handle it; unions had much less universal power and there were few state-run industries. Still, the situations were very similar, so it isn't horribly unusual that both Thatcher and Ronald Reagan won their elections within a year or two of each other. After decades of economic mismanagement (and, of course, a good, old-fashioned dollop of Cold War paranoia) and liberal-state programs, most western democracies were ill and not likely to get much better anytime soon.

Thatcher (and, of course Reagan) were often seen to be the enemy of the unions, and this is not exactly without merit. However, it's also important to remember how much power the trade unions wielded in 1979 Britain. After a series of strikes, things came to a head during the Winter of Discontent: garbage piled up in the streets, hospitals would only take emergency cases, ambulance drivers failed to take emergency calls, various groups struck for wage increases by up to 40% (!), previously agreed-upon contracts were ignored, gravediggers refused to bury the dead and the corpses piled up, and distribution of pretty much all supplies--including food--ground to a halt. In addition, union members would block public access ways and trespass on private property with impunity, descending down into downright thuggery. Regardless of how one thinks of labor unions or socialism, allowing trade unions to have this much power effectively made the economy a wreck. And while the working class was certainly not paid in riches, they were hardly paid sums that would be considered slave wages in that time.

The hidden undercurrent of all this, of course, was Britain's famously rigid class system. Unlike America (for the most part, of course), the average Briton could more or less expect to be in the same class in which they were born. It's quite understandable that, say, a lower working-class young man in a coal district pretty much has no other choice than to become a coal miner, and since he doesn't have a choice he's going to strike to get what he can. On the other hand, it became a vicious cycle; giving people options meant tearing apart the old system, of which the losers would undoubtedly be the trade unionists who had spend the postwar decades building up their operations.

And that is what Thatcher ultimately did. Instead of propping up unsustainable industries, she tore them apart. For better or worse, this caused countless coal miners, garbage men, truck drivers, etc., to be thrown from the workforce and into poverty. However, the old system wasn't working either--it was going to produce a Britain with no future--and anyone who believes otherwise is a fool. Regions of the country that had low-productivity coal seams were going to be shut down because they had to be shut down; the unions tried to prevent this, but Thatcher pushed through anyway. The result was a more robust and diverse economy--but at the expense of the old system.

Beyond this, of course, is Thatcher's stance on the spread of communism, mirroring (mostly) America's policies. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher weren't without their differences, but the solid "special relationship" both nations had with one another no doubt was a massive counterbalance to Soviet expansion. Aside from the Faulklands War, Thatcher's non-communist foreign affairs positions are probably her least defensible, such as cozying up to Augusta Pinochet and clumsily handling South Africa. Still, it's difficult sometimes to remember that in the Cold War era, even that late, choices were often bad and worse.

Ultimately, how you feel about Thatcher's economic process is how you are going to view the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. If you think that the trade unions had gotten too powerful and the economic engine of the British economy had ground to a halt, Thatcher should rightly be considered a stellar success. If you think that Thatcher's drastic dismantling of the state made her a fascist anti-labor zealot, she's obviously going to be a disaster.

The Pledge: It's easy to forget the climate of the times or the consequences of inaction. Thatcher did what was necessary, even though it may not have been easy or popular. The British Economy--and way of life--was disintegrating, and it was a direct consequence of the actions of the government and the unions. Fixing this wasn't easy or popular. However, the fact that she was elected three times and is the UK's longest-serving Prime Minister is telling.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert

Not too long ago on a popular internet forum, a foreigner asked the question: "Why is Roger Ebert such a popular movie critic?"

It's a valid question, to be sure; it's not like Ebert was the only movie critic out there. And he wasn't the most scholarly or--at least in the eyes of New York intellectuals--not even the most respected. And yet when you say "movie reviewer," the one name that immediately pops into your mind is Roger Ebert.

There are several reasons for this, the first and most obvious being At the Movies, a weekly television program where Ebert, along with longtime co-host Gene Siskel (who died in 1999). Being piped into everyone's living rooms and staying there for nearly 20 years (in some form or another) established him and Siskel as the standard bearer of movie critics. Having a snappy thumbs up/thumbs down system also helped, and both were very engaging personalities who were more than willing to spread their opinions in many other formats.

But there's something more than just being in the spotlight. He was also one of the few professional movie critics who doesn't consider everything that isn't a three hour period drama to be worthless. Movie criticism--much like literary criticism and, well, criticism as an industry altogether--is very incestual and naval-gazing in nature. Those who think of themselves as "proper" academic critics view thrillers, horror, romcoms, action, or animations as barely worth calling "film." Unless it's a drama, a documentary, or a subtitled foreign film, it's not worth seeing. Ebert had no such pretensions. He certainly found dramas to be the elite of movies, but he is more than willing to look at other movie genres in their own right.  He would unabashedly compare movies to other similar movies and not to each other--as, really, they should. He wouldn't compare The Incredible Burt Wonderstone to, say, Silver Linings Playbook, but to some other absurd comedy.

Ebert wasn't without his mistakes, and in his older years his politics sometimes got in the way of his content (thankfully, not much). But he had that balance of not being a usless film snob while also not being the mealy-mouthed please-everyone local newspaper critic, either. By providing viewers and readers with content they could actually use, while still maintaining the cache of open-minded reference of the intellectual critic, he was able to provide a high-quality service for over four decades, which I think answers the original question.

Sadly, not two days ago (April 2nd) he announced that he was pulling back his efforts and that his cancer had returned. In doing so, he wrote that he would finally be able to do what he has always wanted to do: watch only those movies he wanted to watch. It's rather unfortunate that that particular pleasure has been taken away from him so quickly after his retirement.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Guest Post: The Berenstain Bears and the Original Sitcom Father

[Editor's note: This week’s post comes from Dawn of Red Pen Mama, and is part of a special day of blog posts from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my own guest post over on Yinz R Readin, where I talk about a book I grew up with and helped develop my unfortunate sense of humor. My wife, over at Tall Tales from a Small Town, has her own guest post over at Ya Jagoff! I recommend reading through all of the entries in the Pittsburgh Blogger group today; there is a lot of good content flowing all over the internets today.]

The Berenstain Bears and the Original Sitcom Father

Remember the book Inside Outside Upside Down?

That was the first Jan and Stan Berenstain book I remember reading.

It's very innocuous, a book about word play and adverbs. And, apparently, shipping yourself somewhere and what can befall you.

At some point, these primary reading books morphed away from "learn to read" to "buckle down to the morality of our times, you worthless heathens". Remember the fun and mystery of Bears in the Night? I loved Bears in the Night. If the Berenstains (God rest their souls, and I do sincerely mean that) wrote that book today, it'd be -- well, it'd probably be somewhat like The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers. (In other words, the message would be STAY THE FUCK IN BED or DON'T VENTURE OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE.)

My younger daughter has brought home a few Berenstain Bears books over the past few weeks from the school library. This is all fine and good -- I am instilling a love of reading in them, and any excuse to sit down with my children (rather than chase them, bathe them, or yell at them) is more than welcome.

They are the latter style Berenstain Bears books. The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners. The Berenstain Bears and The Real Easter Eggs. The Berenstain Bears and Mama's New Job!

These books, listed as First Time Reader books, bug me. Like, a lot. In no particular order:

1. Morality with nebulous spirituality. The Berenstain Bears invoke an ethical morality (say please and thank you, don't be mean, etc.) while veering away from invoking religion. Which, I agree that one does not need to be religious to be a good person (or to raise good people). But, as with the worst political correctness: It's so painfully obvious. In The Real Easter Eggs, for example, the "real meaning of Easter" is "new life", not chocolate bunnies, jellybeans, and colored eggs. Here's the thing, though, "new life" isn't the real meaning of Easter, any more than "picking out nice presents" is the real meaning of Christmas.

They are skirting the secular appeal of a religious holiday. It gets under my skin.

2. Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister. Did it never occur to the Berenstain Bears to NAME THEIR CHARACTERS? Who the heck calls their sibling "Brother" or "Sister"? Also: Mayor Honeypot. Makes me stifle giggles every time, and I'm not about to explain to my children why. "Well, see, the authors picked a name for the mayor of Bear Country that would eventually be slang for vagina." Not going there with my 6- and 8-year-old. Nope.

3. Mama as the moral center of the family. Without fail, Mama Bear is the story's moral voice. She knows what is wrong with her wayward children and husband (more on this in a moment), and through gentle redirection and/or the use of charts (no, really), she sets them firmly back on the right course. Mama herself does no wrong. Even when she eventually starts to work outside the house -- still wearing that polka-dot housegown and cap -- there are no hiccoughs, no difficulties to her setting up her quilt shop (of course Mama is a crafty female). And, boy, that extra money comes in handy when the family wants to eat at a restaurant!

The fact that Mama Bear needs to be morally superior in every situation is my biggest complaint. In my former life, I was a woman's study major, and the classic idea that women are inherently better than men has always been a problem for me. That the female spirit is more gentle, more pure, more *eyes cast heavenward*. It's an old idea that at various times in history has been used to oppress women. As the mom of two daughters, it's not an idea I want to be planted in their heads, which is probably one of the reasons I continue to work and have a life outside of being mom.

4. Papa Bear, the original sitcom dad. We all know the trope: Competent hot woman/mother is married to bumbling, somewhat overweight, man-child. The Berenstains, knowingly or not, started this trend in the 1970s, at the same time that women started entering the workforce in large numbers. (With the exception that Mama is never portrayed as "hot".) Papa Bear is as badly behaved as the children, doesn't impose discipline or morality, and is probably incapable of doing laundry.

Because I do not believe in dictatorial censorship, I do not forbid my children from bringing these books home. When I read them, I try to keep condescending or snarky thoughts firmly to myself. The books can teach harmless, ethical behavior, and provide a civilized example of family life for our animal children.

Of course, there's a whole 'nother peeve: All we see in the Bears' family life is the traditional, nuclear family. Anyone know if the Berenstains, before they died, tried to tackle The Berenstain Bears Meet Tuffy's Two Moms? (Excellent opportunity for satire: The Berenstain Bears Discover Polyamory.)

This Guest Post brought to you by Red Pen Mama, who usually blogs at Thanks for letting me be cranky!