Romney’s Debate Strategy: Beavis and Butt-head Meet Charlie Brown

When I was a child, “Zingers” were a kind of packaged pastry made by Dolly Madison.  They weren’t very good, but because they sponsored Peanuts specials, they had Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or Lucy, or (my favorite) Linus on them.  I desperately wanted to eat them more often.

Mom was smarter than that.  “They really aren’t all that good even a dessert,” she told me.  And I realized she was right: they weren’t very good, they gave me a sugar rush, and of course had no nutritional value at all.

So when the New York Times reports that Romney’s debate team has concluded that “debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August,” it just couldn’t be more appropos.

Quite literally, there is no there there: it’s policy as empty calories.  That’s the entire Republican strategy: avoid all substance and just work on perfecting your put-downs.  It’s the Beavis and Butt-head version of politics. 

It shows something about the clown show in Boston that, faced with a candidate that the public has concluded is a jerk, devises a strategy to make him look like a jerk, and then announces to the media that its strategy is to make their candidate look like a jerk.

Basically, this is an attempt by the Romney campaign to replay 2000, which was essentially this strategy.  Avoid specifics, lie about what you try to do, insult the opponent, and pretend that you are tough.  That’s what happened 12 years ago, and to some extent, that’s what happened in 2004 as well.  But it isn’t working this time, for the three reasons:

1)  Mitt Romney isn’t nearly as good of a candidate as was George W. Bush;

2)  Barack Obama isn’t nearly as bad of a candidate as was Al Gore; and most importantly;

3)  The public has seen the results of eight years of Republican mis-rule.  The GOP strategy is predicated upon the voters being idiots, but the electorate is not playing by the script.  (This is why, of course, Republicans from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Florida are trying to replace it with another one, as Bertold Brecht suggested).

Better try yet another re-re-re-re-boot.

George Carlin on Mitt Romney and free stuff

Jon Chait notes that ” ‘Free stuff’ is just a way of describing government benefits for other people.” George Carlin beat him to it, with the most succinct analysis I have seen of this question.

Mitt Romney doesn’t like the way many Americans seem to want free stuff from the government:

By the way, I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don’t give different speeches to different audiences alright. I gave them the same speech. When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare they weren’t happy, I didn’t get the same response. That’s ok, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy-more free stuff. But don’t forget nothing is really free. It has to paid for by people in the private sector.

Romney was accused of racism for this remark. But this isn’t right. As Jon Chait observes in a nice post, Romney criticizes other claimants, such as white college students, on similar grounds.

Of course the central hypocrisy remains. The core of the current GOP coalition are older white voters who are receiving large actuarial subsidies through Medicare and Social Security. And thus Romney has attacked President Obama for alleged cuts to Medicare. (GOP rhetoric is misleading on these issues, but that’s another story.) Romney himself receives lavish carried interest tax breaks and that $77,000 deduction for a dressage horse. Jon Stewart deliciously notes that this seems pretty free-stuffy, too.

Chait suggests that ” ‘Free stuff’ is just a way of describing government benefits for other people.” That’s true. But George Carlin beat him to it, with the most succinct analysis I have seen of this question.

Heere’s Johnny

Nothing to really add here. This American Masters documentary on Johnny Carson is fantastic, and surprisingly poignant.

If PBS had greater confidence in their shows, they would run stuff like this during their pledge drives, instead of displacing American Masters, Nova, Independent Lens, and Frontline with kindof embarrassing 2012 performances by 1972 stars.

Watch Johnny Carson: King of Late Night on PBS. See more from American Masters.

Bad for art

What can it mean that a pastel drawing sells for $120m?   The economic function of this object is to create value inside the head of people looking at it; if it’s bought on speculation for resale, that function has to be anticipated for a subsequent buyer someday. It’s not copyrighted, so the value has to be the excess of value over that created by a good reproduction, of which there are lots in circulation.  At 5%, it has to be $6m per year to justify this price, or $684/hour working 24/7, four times that 9-5 weekdays. The odds that it will be on display anywhere on any terms every hour of every day forever are pretty slim, so let’s go with 2200 museum hours at $3K/hr.

How many people can be really looking at this piece at once; it’s not very big.  Maybe four, each of whom has to find it worth more than $10/min.   There are certainly people who would pay that, but if they are spending two minutes each, we need 120 of them every working hour, or a quarter million a year, again forever.  No, it’s not the greatest work of art ever made, whatever that could mean, and not in the top thousand despite its poster appeal and legs as a meme.

This transaction is completely ludicrous.  It properly exposes the whole culture of fine arts to ridicule as a game of poseurs, ignorant speculators, and predators that has nothing whatever to do with what paintings are about, or what art does for us, and that it should be a front page story as a serious event  does a little bit to damage the quality of everyone’s engagement with art.



We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles.  Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.

Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life.  This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.

For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do?   Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes.  We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”.  But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality.  I think Forster gets this right.


Overstatement of the Decade

From Andrew Sullivan:

The untimely death of the great Whitney Houston cannot but provoke intense sadness.


The deaths of more than 25,000 children in the Somalian famine and brutality cannot but provoke intense sadness.

The ongoing enslavement of 27 million people worldwide, many of them women and girls in sexual bondage, cannot but provoke intense sadness.

The bloody repression in Syria cannot but provoke intense sadness.

(They would also provoke intense anger, but Andrew’s statement isn’t limited to sadness).

Cue George Will, from 1997, on the reactions to Princess Diana’s death:

When it is the celebrity of the deceased that triggers behavior that gets identified as “grief” and “suffering,” what words remain to describe what occurs in, say, a pediatric oncology ward?

Enough.  She had a great voice.  She sang some really silly songs.  She destroyed herself, with an assist from entertainment industry culture.  That is all.

UPDATE:  But if you must, here’s a song about it:

Harvard fail

Back in the day, the president of Harvard stood up to an unaccountable, unAmerican, evil conspiracy.  I also count Joseph Welch, a Harvard Law alum, (and coincidentally, another Iowa boy) as one of my heroes in the same national battle.  Of course, the stakes then were limited: only the survival of American liberty and the constitution, and academic freedom were on the table.  Now Harvard has the chance to take a stand against another oppressive, unaccountable, force.  Like McCarthy, the NCAA is mistreating a powerless youth as is its conventional practice ,and with its pervasive and typical stupidity, but to do the right thing puts the prosperity of the big-time college sports industry, not to mention Harvard’s own teams’ legitimacy as determined by this secretive cabal, at risk.

It is a “well-known fact” that a university without a top-class, winning, intercollegiate sports program is doomed to academic mediocrity.  I am on a search committee at my own school, and we only had 370 applications for the position, (including a batch of star, top-class finalists).  This pathetic showing must be attributable to our football team’s losing season, right? (What great scholar, after all, would deign to be associated with a place like Chicago, or Cal Tech, or MIT?)  As Harvard has caved on this one, it would appear they either believe this nonsense, or they think college sports as ordained by the NCAA is a higher value than the ones Pusey defended. But they are wrong either way: if Nocera’s reporting is correct, things have changed a lot in Cambridge, and not for the better. [Disclosure: I have four degrees (don’t ask) from Harvard and my daughter has another.  I’m not ‘proud of Harvard’, because I didn’t make it or even change it much when I was there; I hope Harvard is proud of me.  I spent some of the best years of my life there as a student and on the faculty.  I wish Harvard well, and I think it’s a wonderful institution, but I know it to have flaws and shortcomings, and it will have fewer if they are ventilated and confronted.]


This picture is a treasury of symbolism and metaphor.

Helpless on its side, with an enormous hole torn in its hull, this disaster has already killed more than a dozen people who only wanted to have fun for a few days, ruined the career of the captain and possibly headed him for time in the slam, dented the balance sheet of some insurance companies, and dinged confidence in the whole cruise industry.  The bleeding isn’t over. See the pathetic little line of boom strung out along the shore? The ship is liable at any moment to slide off its rock and go underwater, and it’s full of bunker oil ready to foul beaches for miles.

What does it stand for…better, what in today’s news doesn‘t it remind us of!  The world economy, run aground by expert leadership who just wanted to show off  how rich they could get?  The American political process, set up for disaster by the Supreme Court and mismanaged by ideologues who think the only reality is what they can see above the surface of things (charts? we don’t need no stinkin’ charts!), with more pain and damage looming?  The Perry campaign, vacuous glitter and rhinestone bling dead in the water?

This picture is a non-rival good, and serves any of those purposes, feel free. But my first association was with something that, if possible, is even more completely broken and more threatening than any of these: the economy of digital content.  The wonderful structure of copyright, distribution, royalties, law, conventions, and contracts that brought us stuff to read, see and listen to for so long has sailed right into the very well-charted rock of virtual embodiment.  Some pieces of it are still above the waterline, but they don’t work.  And everything – everything – we are contemplating to do about it has about as much hope of success as that pathetic boom.

No, I didn’t steal the picture; it’s a public domain Italian government satellite photo. But all the other pictures floating around the web are also non-rival goods, just like the songs and video files Megaupload is being taken down for circulating, and just like this blog post.  The right price to consumers for all this stuff is zero.  Most of it, especially with some attention from kids in Finland and Bulgaria and who knows where else, is also non-excludible in fact (I could have posted any of hundreds of copyrighted pictures of the Costa C. here and not been punished for it, nor you for looking at them).  That battle is over and the technological facts have won, though there’s plenty of pointless damage yet to be inflicted as the content industries try to make gravity point up.

The right price to creators and providers is not zero.  Pretty simple design constraints, right: give content to consumers at a price of zero, and pay musicians, writers, and the like an efficient and just non-zero price to make it for us.  Simple constraints don’t mean it will be simple to solve the problem, of course, but all the flailing about we’re doing with no good effect on this one is not a counsel of despair.  Very similar problems have been solved quite nicely already, like the sidewalk I’m allowed to walk on for free and the park, whose gardener is not enslaved, but actually earns a nice civil service union wage. And all the clean air I can breathe at will that was quite  expensive for the power plant and my car-driving neighbors to provide for me, and the complete absence of nasty foreign occupying armies provided by a military that pays its workers and ponies up for tanks and all the other gear.

One might think we would be figuring out how to sail our priceless, glorious social capital ship of art and knowledge safely past these technical rocks. But we aren’t; we spent two or three decades arguing in the wheelhouse about whether citizens who just want to get smart and hear some music are pirates, and whether the earth could be flat if we just shout “property” loud enough, and refusing to look at charts that might be useful, and now the ship is wrecked. It will probably be harder, not easier, to right and refloat the longer we wait, and while we yammer about property rights and assigning blame, a large ugly plume of yuck is going to keep spreading across our civic life, as the content that does get provided is bought for us by the people who can afford to put it out under our broken system.


Got MLK?

Later today, “Los Angeles will celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Monday with a parade and community service work designed to honor the slain civil rights leader.”  All very well and good, but I can’t help thinking that the nation still hasn’t quite figured out how to honor King’s birthday.  This is a problem with many of our civic holidays — as important as they are, it is very hard for them to compete for media oxygen in today’s environment.  How do you celebrate, say, President’s Day?

So here’s a modest proposal, which I realize has drawbacks, but I thought I would offer it.

In today’s media environment, the only way for events to get publicity is to have some sort of entertainment value.  Fortunately enough, King Day’s mid-winter timing makes that easy for African-Americans.  One area of contemporary life where African-Americans have succeeded is in professional sports, and particularly in professional basketball.  I’m wondering whether an anchor event for King Day around the country in future years should be mid-day NBA games.  Here in Los Angeles, the Clippers played the Lakers on Saturday night (Clips, 102-94, if you are keeping score): would it really have been so difficult to schedule it at 12:30 on Monday afternoon, as occurs on so many holidays?  In New York, you could have the Knicks and Nets, of course: other cities could also have mid-day games.

The games would not be the sum of the day’s activities, but as I said, would constitute their anchor: they would bring thousands of people to downtown venues, which could then be used for the parades, festivals, and more serious events.

I suppose some might see the proposal as demeaning: here we are supposed to celebrate the life of one of America’s greatest leaders, and you are going to do it with basketball?  I can see the criticism, but I don’t think that it washes. I don’t think that the Lions and Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving reduces the significance of that day.  Ditto having the Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend, or eating cherry pie on (the late, lamented) Washington’s Birthday.  Moreover, successful political mobilization often depends in some part upon entertainment: as historian Michael McGerr has shown in his wonderful book The Decline of Popular Politics, the reason why so many people voted in the late 19th century is that politics was fun.  That’s what gets people out.  Indeed, that’s what gets people out anywhere; that’s why one has church picnics and the like — something that Reverend King would have appreciated as much as anyone else.

What would he have thought about a special NBA day?  We can’t know, but the other day, reading a book about King to my daughter’s second-grade class, I learned that while growing up, young Martin’s friends called him “Will Shoot,” as in every time he gets the ball he will shoot.  Kobe Bryant could certainly appreciate that.