A Primer for Americans on Corbynmania

v218-Jeremy-Corbyn-Get-v2 Many of my American friends have asked me what’s going on with the UK Labour Party leadership election. Hence this primer on the state of play.

After the Labour Party’s shock drubbing in the 2015 election, Ed Miliband resigned as leader. The usual internecine fight that losing parties go through broke out: One faction said the party was not centrist enough and another said it was too close to the center and too far from its traditional roots. The former group are known as New Labour or Blairites (e.g., Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and of course Tony Blair himself). Andrew Rawnsley’s massive book is the essential resource if you want to understand New Labour in depth, but in short New Labour explicitly rejected the socialist left, made peace with the market and neoliberalism and was handsomely rewarded for these changes by British voters (Labour were in power from 1997-2010). In their eyes, Milliband lost because he positioned himself too far to the left, and the party will therefore not get back in power unless it goes with someone closer to the center, like Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall.

Rubbish! says the Socialist wing of Labour, whose negative views of New Labour I related in a prior post that quoted Ian Martin’s dyspeptic, hilarious take on the 2010 Party Conference:

Labour’s message to the electorate is clear – austerity is the new reality but we’re nicer than the Tories. Berks. I hate Labour more than I did when Blair was in charge, squinting into the distance, joshing with America, socialising with the Murdochs. At least he believed in neo-liberalism. The current Loyal Opposition half-believe, but also half-yearn to reconnect to the movement that sustains them, which is half-decent of them I must say. The first clear chance for years to differentiate themselves, to renounce austerity and commit to a genuine Labour manifesto, sod the Mail, renationalise, reunionise, tax the rich, protect the poor, FIGHT FOR THE WORKING CLASS WHICH IS TECHNICALLY THEIR FUCKING PURPOSE and all they can offer is the Vegetarian Option.

In the eyes of old Leftists like Martin, Labour must return to its Pre-Thatcher era values and policies. And to the shock of New Labour, the traditional left has found a champion who is electrifying the party’s grassroots: Jeremy Corbyn (photo above). You can read a bit about his policies here, which reject the essentials of Blairism in favor of the more socialist policies that Labour embraced during the first 90 or so years of its existence. Corbyn is demonstrating the truth of the same political principle as did Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland: If you passionately articulate a clear political message without equivocation and associated Westminster-speak, many formerly disengaged people come out of the woodwork to support you. What can’t be overlooked about Corbyn is that while he is a greybeard who makes aging Labour members nostalgic for their youth, his message is also resonating with a new generation of young leftists who have been alienated from politics until now.

Despite the vein of discontent he has tapped, Corbyn only has a chance of winning because of a major change in the leadership election rules. Previously, Members of Parliament (MPs) had significant control over who became leader. Now they only get to form the list of candidates on which all members of the party then vote (and in that establishment-controlled phase, Corbyn just barely scraped by). The grassroots members are thus in control from here on out, and many of them are looking for someone like Corbyn who speaks to the hearts. A parallel that Americans might appreciate is what happened in the Democratic Party between the 1968 and 1972 elections: New nominating rules meant that former political bosses were overthrown and a wave of new faces with challenging views crashed the party. Of course their hero, George McGovern, got crushed, and that could happen to Corbyn as well if he ever leads his party in a national election. But based on the Labour members I have talked to, many of them would rather lose with someone like Corbyn than win with a New Labour leader.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Enron – The Smartest Guys in the Room

enron

How did one of the country’s largest companies go from riches to rags almost overnight, if it ever truly had riches in the first place? That question is skillfully and intelligently answered in this weekend’s film recommendation: Alex Gibney’s 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The title refers to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, who convinced themselves and the world that they had a created a new kind of company that could make unprecedented profits in the energy sector. As one insider puts it, as each quarterly report approached it seemed the company was not going to make its numbers yet somehow it always did, and then some. Enron’s astronomical reported profits did not gain credibility in a vacuum: Its books were audited by Arthur Anderson, its accounts were interconnected with those of some of the nation’s most trusted financial firms (e.g., Merrill Lynch) and all the “objective” stock analysts were singing the company’s praises. But of course it was all a lie, and it unraveled with shocking speed and horrific destructiveness.

This movie adroitly combines interviews of journalists, former Enron insiders and political figures with archival news footage (e.g., Skilling and fellow crook Andrew Fastow’s Congressional hearings) and some truly damning movies made by Enron executives themselves. Although it’s a bit long-winded at 110 minutes, the film has an admirable ability to explain even to financial novices how Enron executives defrauded investors (not least its own rank and file employees) as well as put California through living hell by intentionally starving the state of electricity.

When this muckraking documentary came out, some critics complained that the film massaged the facts for the sake of left-wing axe-grinding. The narrator being staunch anti-capitalist Peter Coyote and one of the key interviewees being the lawyer who led the class action suit against the company (Bill Lerach) could trigger worries for some viewers that the film is simply comfort food for socialists. But any concerns about bias disappear as the film unfolds because the perpetrators so thoroughly hang themselves before the viewers’ eyes. The film accuses Enron of dodgy “mark to market” accounting and backs it up with Skilling himself appearing in a company produced comedy sketch where he brags about the phony nature of Enron’s books. Likewise, the accusation that Enron traders delighted in destroying California with contrived energy shortages and price gouging is immediately backed up by audiotapes of traders laughing over doing just that (Most disgustingly, cheering on a raging wildfire because it is damaging power lines).

Gibney has done a public service with this movie, but it doesn’t feel like eat your peas viewing. It’s fascinating, disturbing and compelling throughout. And also, there is something refreshing about a movie in which white collar criminals who steal billions actually go to prison in the end. Those were the days.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Drunk Driving Deaths: More an Outrage than a Tragedy

I will never forget one of the most horrible phone calls I ever received, even though it was over 20 years ago: “John was killed yesterday by a drunk driver”. John was a valued colleague and wonderful soul who died young when someone driving on a suspended license (lost due to a prior drunk driving conviction) took John’s life and those of the two other passengers in his car. People close to me have received even worse calls “Your father is dead, a drunk driver cross the center line and killed him”, “This is the state highway patrol, I am sorry to tell you that your daughter and grandaughter are dead”. Dozens of calls like this are received by horrified people every day in our country.

Is this a tragedy? In the common usage of the word tragedy as something very sad, of course it is. But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage. We have a technology that has been convincingly shown to reduce drink driving deaths, but most states are not using it. It’s called 24/7 Sobriety and it not only reduces intoxicated driving, but domestic violence and imprisonment too.

The details of this remarkably simple, effective program are in my article at Wall Street Journal.

Look Ma, No Hands

The driverless car is one of those ideas that was obvious long before it was feasible. As soon as Marconi had demonstrated radio transmission of sound, televisions and videophones were on the agenda. Engineers toyed with driverless cars in the 1920s, with no success; the scheme requires massive cheap computation, which has only become available in the last decade.

SF robot carI looked for an SF magazine cover with transport pods from the 1930s. In vain: the problem is not that writers hadn’t thought of it, it’s that it’s not sexy, in the white girl/BEM/blaster convention of the genre. The best I could find was this alarming robot enforcer from 1935. Contrast today’s unthreatening prototypes.

driverlesscar

 

 

 

 

We don’t get the technical progress we need, but what comes easiest. Cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s? They will be in the post, some day soon. Multi-player role-playing video games, that we never missed before they showed up: step this way. Sometimes need and feasibility coincide, as with the smartphone: the prototype of the universal communicator terminal of science fiction, and a social revolution. Are driverless cars more like video games or smartphones? Continue Reading…

Veronica Pollack responds to an internet heckler.

I wrote an op-ed in Thursday’s Chicago’s Sun Times about the impact of Illinois’s budget crisis on services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A gentleman with initials “J.K.” read it, and sent me the below email.

JK's email

JK’s email

My wife Veronica happened to see it, and composed the below response, which I am posting below.

Dear J.K..

I would like to take a moment to address your question: “Why can’t your wife do it?” As I hear the question, you are really asking: “Why should my hard-earned tax dollars go to help you or people like you?”

First of all, I’d like to say that (I have learned) writers have little say over the headlines that are used for the pieces they write. I cringed when I saw the headline, “Who will help my brother-in-law?” I was concerned that people would jump to the conclusion that we were throwing up our hands and asking for help – an Op-Ed Go Fund Me, if you will. We are not. Harold’s purpose was to present the situation of a few real and relatable human beings being who are being negatively affected by the budget shenanigans going on in our state. He intended to illustrate the dilemma facing thousands of Illinois families, most much less fortunate than our own. Let me explain our situation, again as one example, and also talk a bit more about the needs of families of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

My widowed mother died suddenly in February of 2004. A few days after the funeral, my husband and I along with our two daughters – then seven and nine – drove Vincent to our home in the Chicago suburbs. We re-arranged our home, bought some furniture and settled him in. Almost immediately, I began to arrange his long-needed medical and dental care while helping him mourn the loss of his mother and everything that he knew.

Vincent lived with us for almost three years. The care for an intellectually disabled adult can be joyful, rewarding, but also relentless. There were no longer “babysitters” so every outing – read ballet lesson, soccer practice, pediatrician appointment, trip to the grocery store – became a tour de force. Vincent, like many people living with Fragile X syndrome (the cause of his disability) will eat everything in sight. He also sleeps poorly. This translates into excessive nighttime eating of everything from cereal, flour, mayonnaise – everything. We installed a lock on our refrigerator. Every night we would leave Vincent a snack, and we would stow all of our uncanned food into a few locked foot lockers. We would then drag these foot lockers into our garage to keep Vincent from prying into them.

When Vincent finally found a spot in a sheltered workshop – he was thrilled – the expectation was that I be ready for his pickup between 7 and 8:00 each morning. His drop off could be any time between 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. Do you know many people with a job that would accommodate this schedule? I don’t.

At the time Vincent came to us, I was working from our home on completing my PhD from the University of Michigan. The plan had been for me to work from home and commute as needed while caring for the house and our two children. Ultimately, it became impossible for me to continue. I have been out of the workforce since my entry into my doctoral program. Due to the erratic needs of my brother and some other family complexities, I haven’t been able to work for years.  I have volunteered in the community, at Vincent’s social service agency, at my church and in our local public schools.

As you mentioned, Harold is a professor at the University of Chicago. Imagine a single mother or a family living close to the edge and then impose the need to remove an adult from the workforce and loose years of potential income. This would be a crushing financial blow. Add in the medical expenses (more about this later) – paid for by your tax dollars via Medicaid and Medicare – and almost any family would be bankrupt.

Vincent has had many medical problems. Since his arrival in Illinois I have accompanied him to innumerable doctor appointments, emergency room visits and hospital stays. On one occasion Vincent was discharged from the hospital on three different intravenous antibiotics. He had a PICC line – a long-term IV that is inserted in the arm and ends at the superior vena cava. He needed me to administer the medications, care for the PICC line, give him injections of his anticoagulant medication and change dressings on the sores he had on his lower legs which were the source of his infection. This went on for a month. This was also the straw that broke the camel’s back with respect to my dissertation. Thankfully, my discipline is nursing.

Despite all of this, we were very lucky. Vincent is charming and funny. He has remarkable social intelligence. Perhaps most important, Vincent is very gentle. He is a large man, about 240 pounds. If he were physically aggressive, a fairly common issue among men with fragile X,  I don’t know how we would have managed.

Vincent is also able to feed, toilet, dress, and bathe himself. Not all individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have these skills. I can only imagine how much more relentless and exhausting these added responsibilities must be.

But, you ask, “What does this have to do with me?”

Well, let me ask you something: Do you, should we as a society, believe that the birth of a person with an intellectual or developmental disability should impose such a burden that the very idea should lead families to despair? Do we so devalue the lives that Vincent and his peers lead as to heap a crushing personal and financial blow to families upon the stigma already associated with life as a person living with an intellectual disability?

Vincent, like all people has a complex inner life. He has wishes and hopes for the future. He deeply wants to live the kind of life he perceives a “man” should live. He wants a job, a car, a cell phone. He wants to get married and have children. It is poignant to be with him as he is watching children with their parents. He often says, “Those will be my kids someday.” He loves our family and is fiercely proud and protective of his nieces. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to live in his sister’s house the rest of his life. Would you?

I hope that I have given you a glimpse into a situation not many people talk about. I can’t tell you how to feel. I hope that you would find it in your heart to see the value of efforts that help people with disabilities live with greater dignity. I also hope that you see the value of reducing the isolation and lightening the burdens experienced by many families who confront these challenges.

Sincerely,

Veronica

Cable TV: Socialism that Works?

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 12.39.48 PM

We’re frequently told that if cable companies would allow us to buy channels à la carte, we could save lots of money by not having to pay for all those hundreds of channels we never watch. As the following numerical example illustrates, however, channel bundling may actually enable cable companies to provide offerings that many of us like better than what we’d get under an à-la-carte system.

The key feature of the example is one that also figures prominently in other digital content markets—namely, that the costs of production are mostly fixed: Once content is in hand, the marginal cost of serving additional consumers is essentially zero. Normal intuitions about pricing often break down under these conditions, and that’s what happens here.

For simplicity, suppose there is one premium channel that everyone would like to have (call it HBO) and 100 fringe channels, none of which is valued by more than a small proportion of potential viewers. Suppose there are 120 million potential subscribers in total, that their maximum monthly willingness to pay for access to HBO and the 100 fringe channels is as summarized in this table:

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If the cable company sold HBO separately, their best bet would be to gouge the rich TV fans, selling 10 million subscriptions at a price of $70 each, for $700 million in monthly revenue. They’d also sell 120 million subscriptions to the bundle of 100 fringe channels at a price of $5 each, for another $600 million in revenue. Total monthly revenue: $1,300 million.

Now suppose they can offer a premium bundle consisting of the 100 fringe channels plus HBO. Their best bet would then be to charge $20 a month for that package, at which price they’d sell 50 million units, for monthly revenue of $1,000 million. They’d also sell another 70 million monthly subscriptions to the 100 fringe channels at $5 each, for another $350 million in revenue. So total revenue would be $1,350 million, or $50 million more than before. Yet no subscriber would end up with a package that’s worse than before, and 10 million former HBO à-la-carte subscribers would be paying $55 a month less than before for the combination of HBO and the fringe channels.

This is obviously just a hypothetical example. But it captures the basic idea that when the marginal cost of serving additional subscribers is zero, the average cost of serving each one necessarily goes down whenever sellers can price their offerings in ways that result in increased numbers of units sold.

Tech industry analyst Ben Thompson has described the current cable bundling system as “socialism that works,” offering data suggesting that the implications of my numerical example are hardly farfetched. No one should be surprised, then, if prices for channels like HBO and ESPN go up sharply if cable providers are forced to offer them as stand-alones. That wouldn’t be a good thing for the people who now get those channels as part of a cheaper cable bundle, nor would it help those subscribers who don’t care about the channels.

 

Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: My Name is Julia Ross and Dead of Winter

MyNameIsJuliaRossFFC

The 1941 novel The Woman in Red has been used as the basis of a film twice, with a four-decade gap between versions. As a special double feature, this week I recommend both adaptations: 1945′s My Name is Julia Ross and 1987′s Dead Of Winter.

My Name is Julia Ross was a modestly budgeted Columbia production with a 12-day shooting schedule. But at that point in his career, director Joseph Lewis was used to churning out a C-picture a week on Poverty Row. To have a B-movie budget was for Lewis a major upgrade in resources that allowed him to show how much talent he had. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film serves up noirish gothic suspense and a career-best performance by Nina Foch as the title character. She’s an American living in London who answers a job advertisement placed by a seemingly gentle old woman (a deliciously evil Dame May Whitty). Julia thinks she will be working as a personal assistant, but instead is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a remote mansion on the Cornwall coast where everyone calls her by a different name and acts as if she’s married to a knife-obsessed weirdo (George Macready, who was made for these sorts of roles)! But the villains have not figured on how brave and resourceful is their prey…

My Name is Julia Ross is often cited by critics as being the perfect demonstration that you can make a fine movie on a low budget. The script and performances are solid and the brisk pacing keeps the viewer engaged throughout. Burnett Guffey, a future Academy Award winner, contributes moody and at times even eerie photography, and Lewis’ influence on shot selection is also easily evident (He loved to shoot actors through wagon wheels and fences, here there are shots through the newels of a staircase and the iron bars of a secured window). It is not surprising that the movie more than returned its modest budget and put Lewis on the path to even greater successes (Most notably, the simply amazing Gun Crazy, which features a central character with a fetish that resembles Macready’s here).

picture-of-roddy-mcdowall-and-mary-steenburgen-in-dead-of-winter-1987--large-picture

Many years after My Name is Julia Ross was released, Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone re-imagined the story considerably in Dead of Winter, making the lead character an actress desperate for work (Mary Steenburgen, who has fun playing three different characters). She is interviewed for a role by an inordinately polite and at the same time somehow disturbing assistant (Roddy McDowell, who steals the film) to an alleged film producer (Jan Rubes). In the midst of a raging, isolating winter storm, they bring her to a remote New England mansion and ask her to shoot a scene in which she impersonates Julie Rose, an actress whom they claim has had a nervous breakdown and needs to be replaced on a major film production currently underway. But as the audience we know that Julie has been murdered, and our heroine is falling into a web of danger.

Some of the plot twists and shocks in the film are anticipatable, but others are complete, effective surprises. As you would expect from a modern film, there is more graphic violence than in the original, but it’s not at all overdone. As in the original, it’s rewarding to see a strong, smart female lead character and also have a few moments of black humor. The one significant weakness of Dead of Winter is its length. If director Arthur Penn had to work with Joseph Lewis’ budget, I suspect he would have cut the first 11 minutes of set-up and character backstory and opened the film instead with the Steenburgen’s first meeting with McDowell. That would have made a better movie because the film as made can’t keep the audience in suspense throughout its 100 minute running time, even though the climax is truly nail-biting.

As a set, the two versions of this story make an entertaining and suspenseful double feature. Also, for film buffs, watching these films back to back is a chance to appreciate how the production of movies has changed over the decades.

p.s. Some trivia for you: Gene Wilder’s 1984 film The Woman in Red was based not on the book but a French movie).

p.p.s. Steenburgen’s husband in Dead of Winter (William Russ) is apartment bound because his broken leg is in a cast, but he can at least look out his window and take photos with his high-end camera…I think we know to which classic movie this is an allusion!

The Secret World of David Copperfield

Rooks Here is a good trivia question for bibliophiles: What is the full title of Charles Dickens’ classic novel David Copperfield? The answer, believe it or not, is “David Copperfield: The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account)”.

An even lesser known fact is that there is an actual place called Blunderstone Rookery. It’s located about 60 miles southeast of London, and the carefully selected rooks that are raised there have won many prizes from British birders over the years. I strongly recommend it as an offbeat, sadly overlooked, tourist spot for Dickens fans, not only for the extraordinary number of birds but also for the library at Blunderstone House, which has an astonishing collection of old Dickens editions.

article-2205444-1516AED9000005DC-681_964x651 I myself am a collector of such editions, and over the years have gotten to know Blunderstone’s librarian, Dr. Arnold Humber, a retired Oxford Don who divides his time between producing some of the nation’s best birds and collecting old books. Dr. Humber is also a voracious consumer of modern literature, and I rely on him to tell me what on the current best seller list is worth my time. Indeed, every time I see him I always ask the same question:

Have you bred any good rooks lately?

Negative Achievements in Politics

John Adams, Master of Inaction

John Adams, Master of Inaction

In recent years, the British economy has been the jobs engine of Europe, enjoying falling unemployment, rising wages and good growth. No doubt many politicians will claim credit based on what they did, but I wonder if any credit will go to someone who helped by not doing something.

I speak of Gordon Brown, who refused Tony Blair’s wishes to join the Euro. No matter what British politicians had done since, it’s hard to see how Britain would currently have half the Eurozone’s unemployment rate if Blair had prevailed. By declining to take action on the Euro, Brown aided his country to a greater extent than he did with many of the policies he actually implemented.

But we don’t generally credit politicians for things they didn’t do, even when their inactions had more benefits than their actions. How many people when listing the achievements of President John Adams would for example mention his not launching a full-scale war with France over the XYZ affair? Yet he might have saved our nascent republic in the not doing so.

It’s not cognitively easy for voters to deal with counter-factuals, and the hero’s narrative that the media loves only works when the hero changed history through some great deed rather than standing pat. That’s probably a bad set of incentives for legacy-hungry politicians because sometimes the advice from the theater holds: Don’t just do something, stand there.

Paul Jargowsky on the return of concentrated poverty

My forger former grad-school TA and current Century Foundation colleague Paul Jargowsky just released a beautifully-produced web-report called “Architecture of Segregation: Civil unrest, the concentration of poverty, and public policy.”

Paul is a national leader at understanding the geography of American poverty. It’s a pretty sobering report. The below figure illustrates one reason why. If you wonder why the criminal justice system faces such strains exemplified by misconduct captured in the Black Lives Matter campaign, the harmful trends in residential segregation–abetted by exclusionary zoning and other policies–are essential pieces of the puzzle.
Jargowsky_Architecture_Figure2