Tag Archives: current-events

Cat lady economics

"Job creator."
“Job creator.”

P.T. Barnum would be so proud:  One of the biggest con jobs ever successfully sold to a maddeningly enormous percentage of the masses in Western democracies, particularly in the United States, is that “tax cuts for the rich create jobs.”  It is dispiriting to see this nauseating mantra repeated as fact by low-income individuals who have bought in to the false promise of a country of “haves and soon-to-haves” – that is, the outright lie that everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough (shouted loudest by those who have usually fallen into their fortunes through accidents of birth).  (It was also fascinating to watch conservatives sit stone-faced on their hands as the President promoted the diametrically opposite view in last night’s State of the Union.)  I’m not an economist and I don’t intend to fog up the essence of my argument here with a lot of facts and figures, because the premise gets lost among the spreadsheets and pie charts.  It’s a more basic question, one that goes to the nature of human beings and their capacity for materialism.  Yet it proves just as solidly that supply-side economics will never, ever work.

The presidential election in 2012 offered Americans a stark choice of an incumbent president who had come from a poor family and worked his way up to the highest office in the land – the prototypical American dream, if you will – versus a natural born plutocrat with a silver spoon wedged firmly in his nether regions who dismissed almost half of the public as irredeemable and irrelevant moochers; and, thanks to unprecedented advertising spending and voter intimidation in key states, they came very close to picking the latter.  A remark from President Obama about successful businesses needing to use public infrastructure paid for by the collective taxes of the people was taken out of context and used by the GOP as their rallying cry.  Mitt Romney’s entire presidential campaign, characterized best by the video in which he railed about the “forty-seven percent” to fellow travelers, was trying to assert that the wealthy and successful were singular paragons of virtue, economic growth and American spirit, forever being harassed by a tyrannical, over-reaching government determined to claw away every preciously earned penny and spend it freely on undeserving deadbeats.  (Hardly a rousing “we shall overcome” or even “I like Ike.”)

Basically, Republicans tried to claim that Democrats were demonizing success, sort of a “don’t hate us because we’re beautiful” whine from the country club set. What’s ironic is that on any list of the most admired people in the world, it’s rare to find someone whose net worth is anywhere south of at least a few million.  Rich and famous celebrities are worshiped.  You’re hardly seeing a climate where the likes of Brad Pitt and Katy Perry are dragged from their mansions and paraded naked through the streets by the bedraggled masses.

Even in the aftermath of Romney’s humiliation at the polls and in the new congressional term, Republicans and their sympathizers insist that if we just keep giving rich people more money, well, I don’t really know what the endgame is supposed to be other than giving rich people more money for its own sake.  Perhaps the thought is that if they have $400 million instead of $300 million, that extra $100 million will simply fall from overflowing wallets like proverbial pennies from heaven, as opposed to being stashed in an offshore tax haven.  Even if we try to apply some logic to this argument and suggest that a more-rich person will be more inclined to use his windfall to start a new business that will hire some other folks, who’s to say that business will be successful and produce a product that will resonate and guarantee that these new jobs endure for decades?  It’s lining up all one’s fiduciary chips on a single roulette number and trusting in the decency and intentions of the person you’re enriching.  Communism never worked as Karl Marx intended it to because it failed to account for human nature – if you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx’s ideal state sounds utopian, but it can’t function unless everyone is really, really, REALLY nice to one another – a point lost somewhat on every oppressive Communist world leader ever, which is pretty much all of them.  One might overdose on the irony of capitalism failing for the same reason.

See, here’s the thing with wealthy people.  They may become wealthy because of hard work or, more cynically, because they have a famous surname, but they stay wealthy because they don’t spend their money.  They hoard it with the same obsession and zeal as the sad cases you see every week on A&E who have houses overflowing with old magazines, pieces of broken furniture and used diapers.  And the reason why they hoard it is because they are paranoid – scared to the depth of their bone marrow – that the unwashed barbarian hordes at the gate are coming to take it all away.  Perhaps they’re mindful of the tragic tale of Jack Whittaker, the West Virginia Powerball winner whose prize of $315 million led to him being sued over 400 times by greedy opportunists, the loss of his daughter to drugs and the last of his money to her dealers.  (Whittaker is apparently now broke and wishes in hindsight that he had torn up his ticket.)  But it’s the quintessential human problem of attachment to material things that renders the “more tax cuts for billionaires!” argument utterly unworkable in the real world.  Giving more money to a wealthy man and expecting that act to benefit the economy is like giving a crazy cat lady more cats.  Is the cat lady going to take her new surplus felines and hand them out to deserving orphans who’d love a little kitty of their own?  You can judge the chances of that based on the smell of her house.

We do so love our possessions, and it is against our human nature to share them.  Sure, we donate to charity, we give away old clothes – but we keep the really nice stuff for ourselves.  We’re programmed to.  Buddhism correctly equates attachment with unhappiness – it even turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  How else can one explain the legions of sour-faced billionaires like Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers who decided to open up their overflowing coffers not to improve the lives of their fellow Americans but instead into endless ad buys for the party that was promising to make things even easier for the likes of Joe Ricketts, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers?

It’s estimated that trillions of dollars in cash are missing from the global economy because they are being hoarded by corporate entities and others who are waiting for… well, it can’t possibly be the Rapture or the Mayan apocalypse since those both happened last year and we’re all still kicking.  This is the result of over thirty years of tax reductions by conservative and centrist governments clinging to the ideology of supply-side economics and still claiming despite a repeated pattern of failure that tax rates for the top should be reduced even further – since the growth they anticipate from cuts already in place isn’t happening (roughly the equivalent of saying that my house hasn’t caught fire yet so I should keep trying to light the carpet).  We also see pushes for right-to-work laws in multiple states and even Canadian provinces to cripple unions, force wages lower and boost corporate take-home higher.  This is not a plan for economic growth; it’s a plan to concentrate wealth into the hands of a rarefied few so they can continue their hoarding ways.  They forget the lesson of Henry Ford, who knew that his employees needed to be able to afford to buy the cars they were making in order for his company and indeed America to prosper.

“I never got a job from a poor person” is one of the most common retorts – as if one expects Uncle Pennybags and Scrooge McDuck to stroll down Main Street handing out employment contracts while bellowing like Oprah, “You’re getting a job!  And you’re getting a job!”  Lower and middle income workers are actually the people who generate these jobs.  Their spending is economic rocket fuel.  They’re the ones who buy, on a consistent and ongoing basis, the products that other workers make, necessitating that those jobs endure.  And when you earn less, you save less.  Because a higher percentage of their income is devoted to basic necessities, they can’t afford to stash it away, to hoard it in the Caymans and consequently away from the world’s economic engine like the world’s Romneys.  And they spend that money in their hometown or close to it, not on weekend jaunts to France on the private jet.

It continues to absolutely boggle my mind that any free-market conservative would be opposed to socialized medicine, given that absent the need to divert a huge chunk of their take home into monthly medical payments, people are more likely to spend that cash on clothing, furniture, new tech gadgets, you know, stuff that stimulates economic growth rather than the economic dead zone of a bloated insurance company’s bank account.  The same goes, and perhaps even more dramatically, for Social Security, as seniors aren’t likely to put much of their income into savings given they are in the autumn of their life.  They are more likely to spend that monthly cheque on things that require other people to work to make them.  What would “stop the motor of the world,” as the misguided Ayn Rand put it, would be a massive majority of the population unable to afford anything – not a bunch of billionaires throwing hissy fits and going away somewhere to sulk.

A rich guy may have vast reserves of cash, but he still has limited individual needs.  He is still only one mouth to feed and can only drive one car at a time (and can live in only one house at any given moment, even if he might decide to purchase six or seven more for kicks).  Is it not better to have a nation of millions who can all afford to buy food and a car and a home, thus ensuring robust employment for those who produce food, manufacture cars and build houses?  They’re the ones who need their tax burden reduced.  They are the real job creators – a rich man can start as many businesses as he likes, but if lower and middle income people aren’t buying what he’s selling, the businesses will fail and the jobs will disappear.  Ultimately, there will never be enough rich people to support the global economy on their own, because the one percent have no interest in doing so – they’ve proven that they want to keep the treasure for themselves, eternal Buddhist misery be damned.  And that’s why giving them more and expecting them to turn into Mother Teresas, and consequently expecting the economy to become a roaring prosperity factory, is a fatally stupid idea.

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The road from ideology to idiocy is paved with tanks

A patriot defending against tyranny.
A patriot defending against tyranny.

So this morning, I’m following this Twitter exchange between Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama, and some mostly anonymous American gun lovers who are blowing collective gaskets (or is that muskets) over measures announced by the President this last week to try and curb armed violence in America.  The righties are coming at Jones with the suggestion that ever-more-powerful arsenals are needed by “the people” to combat government “tyranny” (the latest buzzword, like socialism, used to define a paranoid’s impression of some indefinable monster lurking in the shadows:  “I sure don’t know what it is, but I’m damn sure agin it!”)  Jones counters by asking what would be enough for these same people to be able to successfully subdue U.S. soldiers acting on behalf of this hypothetical tyrannical government – chemical weapons, nukes even – and calls what his opponents are suggesting, i.e. firing on American servicemen and women, treasonous.  At which point one individual says Jones is being ridiculous and in the event of this prophesied calamity of Biblical proportions, “the soldiers will be on our side.”  To which I’d say, please see Square, Tiananmen.  But it got me thinking about the course of the entire discussion, where no minds will be changed, no needles will be moved and no one will come away with anything but a heated temper and a more intractable position on the issue.  We act like this is a phenomenon unique to the era of Fox News and infinite blogs and talk radio shows, but the power and the rigidity of belief, whether it is political or spiritual, is one of the defining aspects of humanity.  We’ve seen in countless examples how it is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  The noblest accomplishments we have ever achieved have come from strong beliefs, and sadly, so have our greatest evils.

As a liberal humanist, I’ve chosen my spot on the spectrum and have as much of an ideology as the next guy.  Yet I temper my beliefs with reason and my own personal notion that faith unchallenged is not faith:  one must question everything and back up one’s claims with concrete, scientific, provable evidence.  And one shouldn’t linger in the comfort of one’s own “side,” as it were – you owe it to yourself to look at what the opposition thinks and try to figure out the reasoning behind their points of view.  As I mentioned in my piece a few weeks ago about the Newtown shooting, the obsession with guns comes from a place of fear – as does a great deal of the conservative mindset.  Fear of the untrustworthy, the indigent, the other.  Bad people. Bad people are coming to hurt you, so you need a gun to protect yourself.  Bad people want to steal your money and spend it on other people, so you want taxes cut.  Bad people overseas want to blow you up for reasons you can’t understand, so you want a huge military arsenal to defend your shores.  Bad people want to force you to sleep with men.  Bad people want you to stop going to church.  Bad people this, bad people that.  There seems to be a need to collect all this fear and focus it against a single, identifiable target, hence the evil liberal menace, stoking this fear into the hatred that naturally follows.

Fear, of course, isn’t unique to conservatives.  Liberals fear plenty of things – the devastation of our planet due to wars, environmental pollution or outright greed, religious extremists forcing antiquated and in many cases physically harmful doctrines on the masses, losing our democratic voice to an ever-encroaching corporate plutocracy.  The major difference I see in how a liberal approaches the world is that for liberals, there are no absolutes – and we are more willing to admit that we might be wrong.  On Real Time with Bill Maher a while back, someone, I can’t remember whom, was sparring with a climate change denier and made the argument that if he was wrong about global warming, no big deal, but if the denier was wrong, everyone and everything on Earth would die – so why not try to mitigate the problem anyway?  But a conservative will cling to the same tenets no matter how many times he is proven to be in error; for him, flexibility is weakness.  There was a story a few months ago how Senate Republicans suppressed a study that proved conclusively, through decades of evidence, that tax cuts do not spur job growth.  Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, during our 2011 federal election, kept insisting that corporate tax cuts were desperately needed or this hazy figure of “400,000 jobs” would be lost.  The meme was repeated, unquestioned, ad nauseum by friendly media and likely helped throw more than a few votes his party’s way.  Less than a year later Flaherty was out begging corporations to please oh please if you wouldn’t mind sir, kindly use your hoards of cash we just gifted you to hire a few folks, y’know, if it’s not too much trouble.  Yet you won’t see Flaherty calling for his tax cuts to be repealed, no matter how much red ink is generated, how much proof he is shown that said cuts are as helpful to the economy as fairy dust.  Night after night conservatives yell the fallacy that “tax cuts increase revenue!” as government after government that follows their approach spirals down into deficit and debt (see:  Greece).  Either it’s a massive conspiracy to “starve the beast” – personally, I don’t think most people are that clever – or these folks genuinely believe the fiction they’ve been sold, and like all conservatives, won’t change their minds no matter how often their approach flounders in the practical world.

Ironically, there is a singular example of a near-universal experience of a belief being undone by reasoned analysis.  Nearly all Western children grow up believing that Santa Claus delivers gifts to them every Christmas Eve.  Yet as they age, cracks begin to appear in the story; perhaps some wisenheimer at school brays snottily, “You know it’s just your mom and dad, right?”  (I still remember the name of the kid who did that to me – thanks a lot, Chris Campbell, wherever you are.)  Perhaps they start to do the math and realize it’s physically impossible for one man with one sleigh to deliver billions of toys in less than 8 hours, and they’re less and less satisfied with the explanation that it’s because Santa is magic.  How many adults, even conservatives, still believe in Santa Claus?  But the same method of examination and deduction fails for almost everything else, resulting in decade after decade of the same flawed ideas being offered up regardless of how badly they’ve gone in the past.  It’s like how in Ontario, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has reignited a debate on privatizing the LCBO (the government-owned corporation that manages the sale of alcohol throughout the province and generates loads of income to fund our social programs), despite the utter financial shambles that was his party’s decision to sell off our only toll highway to a Spanish corporation for a song when they were in power, and which we’re still paying for.  And just like how for the National Rifle Association, the answer to the problem of guns in schools is more guns in schools.  Part of this, as I’ve pointed out, is their executive looking out for sales opportunities for gun manufacturers, but this absurd notion would still be defended to the death (or to the cold, dead hands, as they like to put it) by regular rifle-lovers with no financial interest in the outcome.  Apparently, to admit one’s logic is perhaps flawed is to expose a chink in the armor – to risk the entire house crashing in on top of you.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate fear.  Fear of the shell being stripped away to reveal… absolutely nothing.

So long as we’re speaking about shells being ripped away, it’s an interesting happenstance of linguistic evolution that the words “ideology” and “idiocy” both begin with “id” – Freud’s concept of the impulses of the inner self unleashed, at their wildest, with none of the rational examination of said self needed for it to function within the framework of a civilization.  Likewise, beliefs – and indeed, faith – cannot function to the betterment of ourselves and those with whom we share the planet without critical examination.  Be open.  Be open to being wrong.  Those who enter into a debate should entertain the possibility that their beliefs may be changed by the discussion that follows, as much as you are attempting to change the beliefs of those you’re debating with; otherwise, you’re left with people hurling abuse at one another for no perceptible reason other than getting one’s rocks off by being an idiot.  And we all remember the last time being an idiot worked out toward the improvement of the human condition.

Fear and loathing: Christmas 2012

stuffychristmas

It’s emblematic of our age that when a major event occurs, we are guaranteed to know what every person with a computer thinks about it, in various degrees of legibility and/or sanity.  The thoughts expressed following the Sandy Hook massacre have been a virtual deluge of sympathy, anger, regret, confusion, disbelief, shattered faith and predictable political posturing, from both prominent public figures and unpronounceable cyber aliases.  There is a compulsion to find sense in the senseless, meaning in the unimaginable.  To ask how something like this could happen and ensure it never happens again.  For many it’s too late for that; a resignation that these mass shootings are an inevitable consequence of the path the United States is on, where the power of the NRA has made firearms regulation a political third rail and attempts at increasing access to proper medical care lead absurdly to mass protests and election losses.

The little bodies were barely cold before the trotting out of the usual canards began – Republican congressman/professional moron Louie Gohmert (the slightly more evolved protozoan who was screaming a while back that “anchor babies” were the latest terrorist threat) wished that the teachers had been packing heat so they could have pulled the Charles Bronson routine against the killer.  He and others of his ilk think the answer to every mass shooting is to increase the supply of guns amidst the populace – the idea, if you can dignify it with that word, being that potential mass murderers will be deterred from carrying out their insanity if they think it’s possible that one of their targets might shoot back.  Setting aside the fact that not a single gun massacre has ever been stopped in this way, what message are Gohmert and his cretinous colleagues trying to send?  That in the Greatest Country in the World™, people, little children even, should be walking around every day scared to their britches that someone’s going to pull a gun on them?  Please define for me how that constitutes greatness – a land where everyone you pass on the street is a potential murderer to be horrified of.  The other day a boy in Utah was arrested for bringing a firearm to school because he thought someone might shoot him.  I have no doubt that Gohmert et al will hold this boy up as a patriotic defender of liberty instead of the terrified little child that he is, who should be playing with teddy bears and Lego instead of Glocks and Smith & Wessons.

The text of the Second Amendment reads:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  I’m no Constitutional scholar (nor, I suspect, are 99.9999998% of the people who howl about the sanctity of these words) but it’s my understanding based on my read of American history that this was written in light of the fear that the British might return and civilians needed to be able to fight back if the regular American army wasn’t able to get there in time.  Perfectly logical, one supposes, for the late 1790’s, when the fastest public alert system was a guy on horseback yelling that the British were coming.  But scanning through comment sections on news websites, one finds a different argument, that the citizenry must be able to own and wield guns in case the government needs to be violently overthrown (memories of Tea Party Senate candidate Sharron Angle and her infamous “Second Amendment remedies.”)  The same folks who wail “Support the Troops!” every time they are sent into battle (whether or not the cause is just) think that on a whim these same heroes of unimpeachable virtue will transform into mindless pawns of the Antichrist dictator and begin sweeping through the streets mowing down patriotic citizens.  In the highly unlikely (if not utterly impossible) event that ever happens, quite frankly, the government has the 82nd Airborne and stealth bombers and you’ve got three guys with shotguns in a Dodge Durango – I don’t like the odds.  And of course, the government only has those stealth bombers and an entire range of invincible high-tech weaponry because the same people who cite the above logic of the Second Amendment continue to vote for the party who thinks cutting defense spending for any reason is an act of sedition.  If one feels the onset of a migraine at these unfathomable leaps in logic, one must remember that these arguments are not even in the same stadium as logical reasoning – they come entirely from a place of fear.

Fear is the one emotion common to every creature that walks the earth.  It has been ingrained in our being ever since we were swinging through trees to avoid being eaten by something bigger and stronger.  As our minds have developed across the eons, gaining the ability to reason, we have still never shed this most basic instinct.  Fear can, if properly tempered and managed, drive us to achieve greatness.  In The Dark Knight Rises (ironically, a movie tainted by its association with a mass shooting), Bruce Wayne finds it impossible to escape a prison without the motivation of the fear of dying in the attempt.  But fear run rampant is endlessly destructive, and there will always be those who understand this and prey on fear to make money.  The political lobbying of the NRA and its offshoots, despite repeated publicly stated intentions of preserving freedom and promoting responsible gun ownership, is about the freedom of weapons manufacturers to continue to sell their product, regardless of whether those who purchase those weapons are the slightest bit responsible.  And if you are not afraid of a big scary bad guy breaking into your house or the faceless drones of the evil government coming to drag you off to the gulag, what do you need a gun for?  So it is in the interest of companies who sell guns and by extension advocacy groups like the NRA to keep the masses as scared as possible.  They no doubt revel in the free assistance provided to them by the media who splash every act of violence across newspapers, television screens, websites and smartphones and then conduct weeks-long investigative reporting into every single facet of the event and how YOUR FAMILY might be threatened.  Gun sales explode following gun massacres, ostensibly from the fear of being targeted next but really because somehow the government might actually get off its ass and do something about the absurd ready availability of deadly weapons, and nobody wants to be last to the buffet table.  The government, in turn, rarely does anything because it’s too afraid of the ability of the NRA to swing elections, nor does it want to be labelled anti-business by regulating, sanctioning or otherwise restricting gun manufacturers.  And so the cycle of fear creaks on, until it reaches its bloated tentacles into the one place in the world that should be utterly free of fear – a public school.

The children of Sandy Hook Elementary were not feeling any fear that morning.  They were probably excited about Christmas, writing letters to Santa and helping to decorate the classroom with styrofoam snowmen, popcorn garlands and candy canes and reindeer cut from colored construction paper.  They could never have fathomed in their innocent young minds that someone was coming to take everything away in a hailstorm of bullets.  Why would they?  They hadn’t yet had the chance to be properly programmed by the great slouching mass of fear that oozes from society’s pores unchecked by reason and common sense.  Our collective inability to recognize the difference between vigilance and paranoia and to silence those who would exploit our fear for financial gain.  I have to laugh, sadly, when I hear politicians talking about the necessity of beefing up arms and equipment stockpiles to protect our shores from unseen external threats.  Yet what indeed is all this meant to protect?  In a world where everyone has guns, how can anyone ever feel safe?  Indeed, our very failure to check the expansion of the world’s supply of firepower, while enriching those who make the tools of murder, has only aggravated the foreboding hanging perpetually over every human head; like the famous doomsday clock inching ever closer to midnight, we seem to be willing accomplices in our own destruction, ensuring that we remain drugged with constant fear of our neighbour and ever readier to set off the fuse at the slightest provocation.

The suggestion purported by some that every school should post armed guards would be laughable were it not so tragic.  They forget the subliminal lesson the presence of a scary uniformed guy packing an obvious .45 engraves upon the impressionable child’s mind – that the world is a frightening place to be regarded with suspicion and mistrust.  The millions of kids who came home from school safely that terrible day would be full of questions, with parents and guardians struggling desperately for reassuring answers.  It is simply not enough to reach for the usual prayers, platitudes and bromides and change the channel until the next incident occurs.  We often speak about the kind of world we are leaving our children, whether it will be a better, more prosperous life, or something out of the most nightmarish dystopian fiction.  What is needed to achieve the former – beyond the immediate fixes of an increased focus on mental health care and sensible, effective gun restrictions – is a fundamental re-examination of the wisdom of the agenda of fear:  the invisible conspiracy convincing the world that we need to jump at our own shadows, not because shadows are scary, but so we’ll be the first in line to purchase deluxe-grade shadow repellent.  We are hooked on fear like the proverbial junkie chasing his next fix.  And in one area, I find myself in agreement with some of the Second Amendment advocates, in that I don’t think gun control is the panacea, although it will certainly help start the journey.  When we learn to shun the fearmongers, when we evolve away from this notion that we need an arsenal to protect ourselves from the boogeyman lurking in the alleyway, when we celebrate the good instead of constantly giving airtime to the bad, when we reject the concept that safety only comes through deterrence, and when we recognize that the right of children to attend school free of fear should always trump somebody else’s freedom to blow a deer’s brains out, and resolve to do whatever it takes to make that happen, then we will be able to finally crawl out from the iron grip of fear, and into a better future.  We owe it to those dear lost children who won’t be celebrating Christmas this year.  The alternative – the slow, doomed march of the status quo – is simply too frightening to contemplate.

In any event, now you know what this anonymous idiot with a keyboard thinks.  And my hope is that you and your family have a joyful, celebratory holiday season utterly free of fear and loathing.  See you in the next one, and let’s get on with things, shall we?

UPDATE:  The NRA has officially responded and predictably, they’ve blamed everything but guns and suggested the answer is more guns in schools.  Armed guards in every school, which won’t necessarily have to be police but volunteers (because armed guards are wonderful but amateur armed guards would be even better!)  And the taxpayer would of course be the one to pick up the tab for the huge bill the weapons manufacturers would then get to send to the government.  NRA Vice President/Gun Pimp Wayne LaPierre says that “the only thing that can stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.”  And while he was speaking, someone shot and killed four people in Pennsylvania, wounding two state troopers in the process, who, presumably, were armed.

Your move, America.

“I Misspoke” and non-apology apologies

Rep. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for Senate (Missouri). Not pictured: Todd Akin’s brain.

By now, everyone with even a passing interest in the U.S. election has heard of Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s remark that “legitimate rape,” whatever on earth that is, doesn’t cause pregnancy.  Compounding the sheer idiocy of this comment was Akin’s follow-up non-apology apology, in which he claimed he misspoke and pivoted as hard as he could without acquiring whiplash to bashing President Obama on his handling of the economy.  It’s been observed that Akin likely isn’t sorry at all that he said what he did, that his original remarks come from a place of deeply-held convictions fuelled by religion and God knows – pun intended – what else.  Saying “I misspoke” is poll-tested politicalspeak for “I know what I said will probably lose votes but I don’t want to outright disavow it because that will lose the votes of my base and I really don’t want to be portrayed as a flip-flopper or give my opponent something they can use against me in a TV ad and… SQUIRREL!”  Akin’s hoping to ride out the news cycle and trusting that the rubes who would vote for Vlad the Impaler so long as he was running on a Republican “values” platform will still put him and his 15th Century views on women in the Senate chamber come November.  That’s what “I misspoke” really is, no matter who uses it:  a Get Out of Jail (or at least a Get Your Foot Out of Your Mouth) Free card.  It’s a stopgap half-truth designed to soothe the angry, reassure the faithful and ultimately prove what a spineless weasel the candidate is – a small person without courage, without integrity, and without any business occupying elected office.

Real men own their mistakes.  If Todd Akin says he’s going to take out the garbage and forgets, what does he say to his wife?  “In reviewing my remarks to you at the dinner table earlier this evening, it’s clear that I misspoke in our discussion and it does not reflect my deep empathy for the millions of trash bags left rotting at the curb every year as the truck drives away.  This is clearly a result of President Obama’s failed waste collection policies and an example of why we need new leadership in Washington.”  Wonder how that doesn’t end with him sleeping on the couch for a month?  If this hypothetical situation goes down, what really happens is that Akin begs on his knees for forgiveness, buys Mrs. Akin flowers and a spa day and never forgets to take out the garbage again.  Why don’t we demand the same level of accountability for those we entrust with the public purse?  Why are they allowed to say “I misspoke” and get off scot-free – or worse, get into office where they can screw our lives with impunity before retiring on a glorious pension after utterly hosing the millions who voted for them in the first place?

 When you think about it, the “I Misspoke” is genius.  It has the effect of feigning contrition where there is absolutely none – where the costs of doing so are deemed by a focus group to be politically suicidal.  It sounds amazingly remorseful, yet isn’t in the slightest.  From what I’ve observed, there are essentially three components to the “I Misspoke,” and none of them involve acknowledging responsibility:

  1. Point out that there may have been some confusion about the intent of the remarks.  Even if the remarks were abhorrent, it’s always about the confusion.  Shorter version:  It’s your fault you’re upset by what I said.
  2. Claim I’m really a nice guy because I love flowers and rainbows and kittens and I feel really bad for people who have to go through hard times (the subtext being, elect me and I’ll vote to cut funding for every single one of you, you freeloading bastards).
  3. Pivot to something completely unrelated as long as it’s a poll-tested, campaign-approved message.  “Yes, I probably should not have expressed my admiration for the German economy of the 1940’s but man, did you get a load of Ryan Lochte’s abs?  And what’s the deal with Nyan Cat?”

Notice too that the word “sorry” seldom, if ever, appears in the context of the “I Misspoke.”  That’s only used by people who feel genuinely distraught about the weight of what they’ve done, and intend by whatever means necessary to rectify it.  If Todd Akin is elected to the Senate, he will not experience any road-to-Damascus conversion and suddenly become a champion of abortion rights and women’s issues.  He’ll vote according to what was on display in that original interview, saying “aye” to every mandatory ultrasound-requiring, Planned Parenthood-defunding, women’s health care-eliminating bill that comes his way.  If Akin is upset at all it’s that he’s put his Senate bid in jeopardy – he does not give one-tenth of a rat’s ass about women, which is why his non-apology apology rings so false.  As Rihanna might opine, “don’t tell me you’re sorry ‘cause you’re not, when you’re only sorry you got caught.” 

Because voters treat political parties like baseball teams, supporting their side to the bitter end regardless of faults (Jan Brewer winning re-election as Arizona’s governor after spacing out during the gubernatorial debate is a prime recent example), Akin stands little chance of seeing any serious long-term blowback on this issue – despite calls for him to stand aside as the Republican nominee for the Missouri Senate seat, calls which as of this writing he is brushing off.  If I were Todd Akin’s campaign manager right now, I’d tell him to stay the course, that Missouri trends right and so long as he stays on message for the rest of the campaign (read:  Obama bad!  Taxes bad!) he’ll probably win anyway, thanks largely to Karl Rove and Super PAC money.  But I wouldn’t be his campaign manager, because I’d never support such a backwards-thinking, poorly-educated head-in-the-sand empty shirt for an office of such stature.  See, the problem with the “I Misspoke” isn’t that people use it.  It’s that we have lowered the bar so far that people can “misspeak” and carry on regardless.  So long as we fail to hold our elected officials accountable when they reveal their true character as Todd Akin has, and like Akin, refuse to accept responsibility for their dumbassery, we will continue to be outraged instead of inspired, and dragged down by the worst of us instead of lifted by the best.

And I do not misspeak when I say that.

Following the money, missing the point

 

It really is just a pile of dead trees.

It’s with equal degrees of bemusement and resignation that I read articles speculating on how the real-life breakup of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart may affect the box-office performance of Breaking Dawn, Part II.  Nor is it any stretch of the imagination to suspect that the morning following the Aurora massacre an emergency meeting was called in a studio boardroom somewhere to discuss how that tragedy would impact the ticket sales for The Dark Knight Rises.  The biggest questions in the presidential election revolve around money – how much of it Mitt Romney may or may not have paid in taxes, how much his campaign is raking in from billionaire Super PAC donors, whether or not Barack Obama can become the first incumbent president to be outspent and still secure re-election.  Austerity, whether advisable or not, and deficit reduction dominate the agenda of every government on the planet.  The rich are vilified in one circle for acting like feudal overlords, and praised in another as job creators.  Money is the filter through which we examine everything – we have become a species of accountants obsessed with numbers and the bottom line.  And yet we’re more miserable than we’ve ever been:  impatient, demanding, and more prone to outbursts of rage for the most insignificant reasons.  Something is clearly askew.  Is it perhaps time to undertake the first step in recovery and admit that we have a problem – that obsessing over money isn’t getting us anywhere?

I’m not naïve enough to suggest that the acquisition of wealth is ever going to fade away as a motivating factor in human behaviour; it’s been that way ever since the first Australopithecus looked out with longing at the bigger, cosier cave his neighbour across the way was occupying.  But that motivation is rooted in the biggest lie of all – that having more means being happier.  Marketers and advertisers understand this, which is why every commercial you’ve ever seen is designed to make you feel inadequate and envious, and to suggest, in somewhat the same manner as a drug dealer would, that you just need a hit of whatever is being sold – cars, shoes, cologne or designer jeans – to ease the pain of your unendingly terrible existence.  We all know better, and yet we buy in – pun most depressingly intended – to the lie, sacrificing what we’ve earned for temporary relief, at least until the next ad comes on and we begin to think ourselves lacking in some other area.  It does not have to be this way, and yet we have been conditioned in the same manner to define success in dollars alone – not influence or reach or the fundamental amelioration of our collective humanity.  Somewhere along the way, the virtue of working hard as its own reward transformed into only a means to the end of securing one’s fortune at the expense of the well-being of our peers.  Men of business the world over with less moral integrity than the average cockroach are revered as leaders and held up as ideals to emulate because they have managed to accumulate piles and piles of cash, with little, if any, consideration given to the lives that have been destroyed by their greed.  We are forced to listen to their obscene rants and give credence to their perverted worldviews because we have decided that they deserve our attention based on the size of their bank accounts.  Opinions that would otherwise be dismissed the ravings of lunacy shape policy for billions of people, because money defines the parameters of the conversation.  To our everlasting shame, we have allowed it to – in whom we have voted for and whom we have chosen to place upon gilded pedestals to admire.

Enough is enough.

Some would argue that there is a moral imperative within each soul born upon this planet to leave it in a better state than which they found it.  This is an aim hardly served by pillaging and plundering the earth’s treasures for the benefit of a select few.  What is needed is a reorienting of our values and a new form of currency, one that cannot be tied to the whims of banks:  a currency of ideas, in which the ideas are evaluated on their substance and not on how much cash is flowing behind them.  Do I think this is ever going to happen?  Well, probably not in my lifetime.  The forces of money are too deeply entrenched within the corridors of power.  But we can get the process started – by refusing to grant those forces our slavish attention, and by shedding the ridiculous belief that someone is better than we are because they are wealthier.  By not caring anymore how much so-and-so gets paid for his latest album or her starring debut.  By emphasizing quality over quantity, and evaluating character completely independently of the size of a person’s wallet.  By making “successful businessman” roughly the same estimation of a man’s worth as “frequent water drinker.”  Not going so far as vilifying financial success outright, but making it the very least important of the measures of a human being.  Saying “oh, you’re a billionaire casino entrepreneur?  How nice for you – my kid just scored three goals at his soccer game last Saturday.”

We cannot achieve true fairness in this world until we stop worshipping those things that make the world unfair.  What’s most encouraging is that we still have the choice to do that.  We just have to make it.

Mary Sue Romney and the illusion of leadership

Sleeves rolled up? Check. In front of flag? Check. Pithy podium slogan? Check. All glory to the Leader!

Mitt Romney’s campaign out-fundraised the re-election campaign of incumbent President Barack Obama again last month with over $100 million in donations taken in, to say nothing of what is going to the various Super PACs supporting his candidacy (with naturally, no coordination whatsoever, fingers crossed, honest to God, swear on his baptized father-in-law’s grave).  A seemingly unending reservoir of money dedicated to pushing a man with no convictions he will not abandon, no principles he will not set aside and no lingering shred of integrity he won’t compromise in a heartbeat of expediency into the powerful office in the world.  A man so utterly mediocre and lacking in empathy and imagination, indeed, in personality, that in a logical world he should barely register in the single digits of political support, stands a dishearteningly good chance of taking over in November – and who knows what happens then.

Yet Mitt Romney epitomizes how our notions of what constitutes leadership have been distilled, diluted and dismantled.  In the darkest archives of fan fiction we find the concept of the “Mary Sue” – the flawless new-to-canon character who saves the day repeatedly with a combination of irresistible charm, unfathomable skill and perfect breasts.  Mitt Romney has neither charm, nor skill, nor any breasts that I’m aware of, but he does share one notable trait with Mary Sue:  they are both as dull as dishwater.  “Mitt Romney” in a novel would be rejected by a publisher for being bland, unappealing and unbelievable, but in real life he’s perilously close to winning the Presidency.  The problem is, bland is the new black.  Bland is the new leadership – a trope which has been drilled into our heads by seeing too many Romney types waving to the crowd in TV ads as a faceless voice repeats “strong leader” as many times as the 30-second spot will allow.  See enough of these, as Goebbels would note, and the message starts to seep in, regardless of how antithetical it may be to the nature of the person being described.  In Canada, enough of us believe Stephen Harper is a strong leader not on any evidence that he’s shown in his actual style of governance, but because four successive election campaigns have said that he is (and more to the point, that whichever Leader of the Opposition he’s been facing isn’t).  This proroguing, speech-stifling, attack ad-funding, shameless crony-appointing former oil company mailroom boy with a massive inferiority complex rates first in all polls of the Canadian leadership scene.  And the rest of the world asks, with 34 million of you to choose from, that frickin’ guy’s the best you could come up with?  Just like the rest of the world is looking at the U.S. race and saying “Look, perhaps President Obama hasn’t been perfect, but really?  The guy who strapped the dog to the roof of his car?”

Romney locked up the Republican nomination not because he was a singular, inspiring figure, but because he was less insane than the other pretenders to the throne – Newt-Tiffany’s-Gingrich, Herman-9-9-9-Cain, Rick-Old-Testament-Santorum, Ron-I-don’t-believe-in-Social-Security-but-I-still-collect-it-Paul and Rick-What-planet-am-I-on-anyway-let’s-just-shoot-it-Perry.  Faced with the prospect of any of those characters with their fingers on the nuclear trigger, Romney sounded like a much safer bet, beliefs in magic underwear, baptizing dead relatives and Planet Kolob aside.  His blandness enabled him to emerge from the pack of the weakest contenders the Republicans have ever fielded.  And blandness combined with money enables him to pose a serious challenge to a President who has struggled with the worst economy since the Depression and an opposition Congress determined to see it stay that way in the cynical expectation that voters afflicted with Guy Pearce’s illness from Memento will turn to them to right it.  This somehow translates to Romney being perceived, against all sense, as a leader. U.S. progressives hope that the presidential debates will be Obama’s chance to demonstrate for good how empty a shirt Romney is, but they forget that John Kerry wiped the floor with George W. Bush during their three sparring matches in 2004 and still lost the election.  Proof of leadership is unnecessary; the appearance of leadership is enough, even if it’s all smoke, mirrors and flight suits.

David Letterman has famously said of Mitt Romney, “He doesn’t look like a President, he looks like the guy who plays the President in a Canadian made-for-TV movie.”  For many, that’s a dream candidate.  The guy who takes no stands that might possibly make him the slightest bit unpopular, best expressed by Marlee Matlin’s pollster Joey Lucas on a first-season West Wing:  “There go my people, I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”  Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once observed cannily that he and three of his contemporaries in the office reached the highpoint of their popularity before they had done anything.  Mitt Romney is at his best right now; there is no evidence whatsoever that he has it within him to “rise to the challenge of the office” and become a man of destiny.  One does not even get the sense that anybody particularly wants him to – infamous anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has said publicly that he doesn’t want a President who thinks, just one who signs whatever Congress puts in front of him.  As long as Mitt Romney can spell his name, Norquist and his supporters think he’s leadership material.  A bar set so low it’s hovering near the earth’s core.

For the majority of the right, it’s enough that Romney is not Barack Hussein Obama.  But let no one labor under the illusion that leadership and gravitas is acquired just by not being someone else.  An orange is not a pineapple just because it’s not a pear.  Romney has no vision, no plan, and fundamentally no real belief in the nobility of the office he aspires to.  The evidence is overwhelming:  Mary Sue Romney should not be President, and hopefully it doesn’t require four agonizing years of a Romney presidency for America to realize that.

Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls

UrbanDictionary.com defines a “concern troll” as “someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with ‘concerns.’  The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you’re an ally.”

There is no better description of the dozens of op-ed writers (and thousands of anonymous commenters) cautioning Liberals against rallying behind Justin Trudeau as their next leader.  The opinions are widely disseminated, but all come back to the same litany of talking points:  it’s not his time, he’s too young, his last name is poison in parts of the country, he hasn’t run a successful business, he hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy.  If any of these tropes sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same weak sauce flung at up-and-coming Senator Barack Obama in 2008, indicating clearly that none of what the concern trolls are falling over themselves in weepy anguish to preach to the poor, poor Liberals will make any damn bit of difference in Trudeau’s ability to lead his party to victory in a national election.  Instead, these pleas sound like attempts to nudge the Grits towards picking an unexciting candidate who will make Stephen Harper look like George Clooney – so Canadian readers can suffer another few years’ worth of pedantic “Is the Liberal Party Dead?” articles.

Canadian politicians have never been particularly renowned for their charisma.  Ours is a history of electing the safe and the bland, of choosing managers over leaders.  Ironically, the turning point in virtually every Canadian election has come when we’ve seen a flash of personality, a quotable moment that provokes headlines and water cooler discussion.  Brian Mulroney telling John Turner “You had an option, sir.”  Jean Chretien’s speech about his facial paralysis following a cruel attack ad from the other side.  Jack Layton shredding Michael Ignatieff’s election hopes with “If Canadians don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”  Those are the President Bartlet moments we hunger for and latch onto because they are so rare.  We may claim we want only the seasoned, sensible accountant to watch the public purse, but we need that firebrand to stir our emotions, to get us thinking, and to spur a true and fair debate on who we are as Canadians and what kind of country we want to create for ourselves.   To engage us in the fate of our nation once again.  It’s quite possible we’d experience a collective freak-out were someone like that to emerge on the scene again; our stolid nature simply wouldn’t know how to handle it.

But that would be a good thing.

Justin Trudeau’s reluctance to take on the challenge of restoring the bruised and battered Liberal Party suggests that much unlike the copious evidence pouring out of Stephen Harper’s every extremity, he has not spent his entire life dreaming of power.  Trudeau could have parachuted into a safe seat during the Chretien heyday and squatted on the backbenches, quietly building an organization of loyalists and working towards an eventual leadership coup.  Would this have been considered the more appropriate path to the top by the pundits?  Perhaps, but instead, Trudeau chose to run in a Bloc Quebecois riding in an election where the Liberals had already been mired in opposition an uncomfortable two years under Stephane Dion, who despite good intentions could not connect with a lackadaisical public force-fed with the Conservative “not a leader” meme by a compliant media.  Against odds, Trudeau took the fight to the enemy and won it.  He did not coast in on fame and memories of Liberal glories past, nor did he simply promise to cut taxes and be a puppet for his party.  He won Papineau by going door to door advancing the ideals that government can be a place for good work when the best people are in charge of it.  One does not need to be an exceptional person to keep a corporate balance sheet in the black; the ability to inspire people with deeds, images and words, is a much rarer gift.  In Justin Trudeau, one can see these glimmers of the stuff of leadership.  Where the concern trolls get the idea that this translates to a lack of life accomplishment is a bit bewildering.

In his four years as an MP, Trudeau has been an advocate for youth, the environment and a vigorous democracy, and has done so while raising a young family.  He’s shown passion and an unwillingness to moderate his tone when it comes to speaking about what he believes; advancing the notion that principles are more important than electoral totals.  And famously, earlier this year, he stood his ground against a hulk of a Conservative Senator and trounced him in a boxing match the Sun News crowd were salivating over the prospect of watching him lose.  In the ring, Trudeau gives everything he’s got.  The nobility of the fight, what it truly means to the people watching, and not the aggrandizement of the ego of the man, is what matters to him.  Do you want to follow the leader because he’s leading for your benefit, or for his own?  Contrast this against the guy apparently so insecure he has to use your tax dollars to rename the government after himself.

The important thing to keep in mind as well when concern trolls spout off about a dearth of executive experience on Trudeau’s shoulders is that Harper’s attitude to the contrary, the Prime Minister is not the President – and even the President delegates.  Even as a rump of its former self the Liberal bench is deep with former cabinet ministers and seasoned professionals who would be well equipped to counsel a potential future Prime Minister Trudeau on any policies where he felt his own expertise wanting – to say nothing of who else might choose to stand for election with Trudeau leading the party.  And you get the sense that Trudeau would not be afraid to ask, either; that he understands the virtue of surrounding himself with smart people and letting them shine.  Again, one must look at this in comparison to Harper’s approach of farming out cabinet posts to party hacks and running everything out of the PMO.  This strategy leads inevitably to taxpayers footing the bill for $16 orange juice.

We’ve had enough managers, we’ve had enough boring old guys droning on about their eighteen-point-plans to reduce the deficit and ensure economic growth to 2050.  What will get Canadians excited, what the Liberals need, and what terrifies the concern trolls, is someone who can appeal to our better angels on a visceral level.  Someone who can get the cynical back to the polls and who can mobilize the divided yet potent, growing energies on the progressive side into a force that overwhelms the cash-heavy Conservative smear machine.  For all his skill as a parliamentarian, I don’t see that quality in the dour Thomas Mulcair, and Bob Rae obviously wasn’t sure he was that man either.  I’ll admit that we don’t know for certain if Justin Trudeau has that in him.  But the volume of ink being expended against his candidacy in the guise of ensuring the long-term future of the Liberals suggests a lot of people on the other side of the spectrum are panicked that he does and are trying, ever so gently, to urge him to stay out of the race, lest a dragon they cannot slay rear its big red head.

That Trudeau is not responding immediately to the media storm about his candidacy (or lack thereof) is encouraging.  He’s considering his options, consulting his family, and hopefully letting the background noise of the concern trolls wash over him.  If he lets any of their feigned worries become the deciding factor, then he wasn’t the guy to begin with.  But if he decides to step up, I suspect he’ll end up doing to the naysayers – metaphorically, at least – what he did to Senator Patrick Brazeau.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.

Quis custodiet ipsos numeros?

An emergency board meeting in Margin Call.

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a 2011 movie about the 2008 financial crisis that stars Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Zachary Quinto (who also produced).  It features a topical storyline, some strong, subtle performances (particularly from Irons and Tucci), interesting characters and key ethical questions to be asked about the spiritual worth of the pursuit of money.  It is also somewhat difficult to follow if you do not have experience in high finance.  Characters drop references to commercial securities, asset valuations and market fluctuations so fast, without pausing for a breath to catch the audience up, that you almost find yourself wishing for subtitles.  Even when characters make jokes about not being able to understand what they’re looking at, and plead for facts to be explained in plain English (or as Irons says at one point, as if one is speaking to a small child or dog), what follows remains untranslated biz jargon.  Cobbling together what you do comprehend, you conclude that a major investment firm has gotten too greedy and has purchased too many high-risk assets that, due to changes in the market, are about to become worthless, necessitating a massive pre-emptive sell-off that will, in itself, precipitate a further worldwide decline, but may, it is hoped, save a portion of the firm.  (I hope you got all that because I’m still trying to figure it out.)  The moment this becomes clear is when Irons puts it into colloquial terms, declaring, “The music is about to stop and we’ll be left holding a bag of odorous excrement.”

One cannot help but be reminded of the Star Trek trope where one character proposes a long technobabbling resolution to a crisis, summed up by someone else with a much simpler metaphor:  “If we reconfigure the deflector dish to emit a synchronous stream of alpha-wave positrons along a non-linear coefficient curve, we might be able to produce a stable gravimetric oscillation that would divert the asteroid’s course.”  “Like dropping pebbles into a pond… make it so!”  As tiresome as this became, it was done for a reason.  When setting any scene in a foreign environment – be it another country, another world or simply an exotic office – the writer has to walk a tightrope between being truthful to the environment and servicing the demands of drama.  The audience has to be able to relate to what’s going on in front of them, or it might as well indeed all be playing out in Mandarin Chinese.  Yet you don’t want to dumb things down for mass consumption, and you can’t succumb to the dreaded “As you know, Bob” epic fail:  characters stopping to explain things that they already know, and would have no reason to discuss given the course of their day.  If you’re an accountant, are you going to spend any time explaining to your veteran colleague what a trial balance is?  Is Alex Rodriguez going to pause mid-game for a five-minute exegesis with Derek Jeter on the infield fly rule?  Nor does it make any sense for these experienced brokers to sermonize on the basics of brokerage.  Usually a writer gets around this by introducing a “fresh-faced intern on his first day” who can ask the “business 101” questions on behalf of us dummies watching.

There are no interns or other such clichés in Margin Call, which chooses not to explain its dialogue in digestible nuggets for the masses.  Characters in this glass-enclosed world debate, ruminate, decide what they have to do and proceed with their financial chicanery, complicit in what may turn out to be their own destruction.  And after scratching your head for an hour and a half, you discover that what is sneakily clever about Margin Call’s screenplay is how it turns the incomprehensibility of its subject matter into a revelation about its subjects – the wheelers and dealers of the Wall Street world, men and women who are as much prisoners of an impenetrable capitalist system as those of us who can scarcely be bothered to look at our mutual fund statement every month.  No one understands this stuff, not really; they just want it all to work seamlessly and invisibly to make them rich, which is part of what makes the system so vulnerable to collapse.  Depressingly, here in the real world, four years on, the same cycle of greed has circumvented the installation of proper safeguards to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated.  It’s too complicated, no one really gets it, they can’t be bothered, it’s trivial, that’s the other guy’s problem, the market will regulate itself as it always has.  But the genie is long out of the bottle.  In a moment of insight, Jeremy Irons’ character judges this world thus: “It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” 

The problem is we are killing each other over these pieces of paper – we are letting the numbers control our lives, and as Margin Call demonstrates, no one is truly in control of the numbers.  It’s all gambling, and as any experienced gambler will tell you, no matter how well you play, in the end the house always wins.  I’m not sure who “the house” is in this case, but I’m fairly certain that it isn’t us.

Rob Ford and political chicken

I’m no fan of Rob Ford.  I find him to be a regressive, rude, bullying, half-witted right-wing douchebag I wouldn’t trust to have my back in a bar fight, let alone as the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the world.  Yet this uproar over his recent purchase of some fried chicken at a local KFC, dutifully recorded and uploaded to the Internet for the digital world’s derision, is a step too far.  I recall a conversation with a guy I used to work with, when we were talking about Ford and I was relating my less than favourable opinion of him.  This fellow said to me, “I appreciate that you don’t ever talk about his weight.”  My response was, why should I?  He could be a 98-pound beanpole and still advance policies that make my stomach turn.  Ford’s physical condition has absolutely nothing to do with how he conducts himself or how he performs as a public official, which are the only things we should be judging him on.

The counter-argument is that Ford made his weight an issue ripe for public scrutiny by politicizing his “Cut the Waist” challenge.  Contrast this with the response to Vic Toews and his infamous “child pornographers” comment.  There were two major initiatives on Twitter:  the @vikileaks feed, which posted publicly available records of Toews’ divorce, and the spontaneous #TellVicEverything campaign, in which users overwhelmed Toews’ Twitter feed with the mundane details of their lives – what they ate for breakfast, what was playing on their iPod, how many pigeons there were in the park and so on.  The former was disgraceful, because it made political hay of Toews’ family problems.  The latter was hysterically funny, because it mocked Toews’ boneheaded political stance.  It made the policy a laughingstock, without belittling the man’s private life.  That’s what the other guys do.

Imagine if Rob Ford were a liberal titan, boldly advancing green initiatives and progressive social policies and vowing to make Toronto car-free and overgrown with trees by 2020 – would we on the left side of the spectrum be so inclined to laugh about a lapse in his diet?  Anyone who’s ever dieted knows how hard it is, how bad the cravings can get, even when you’re not under the 24-hour stress of leading a city of millions.  We’ve all had our weak moments where we reach for the ice cream.  That’s not a criticism of Rob Ford; if nothing else, it humanizes the guy a little, and reminds you that under all the bloviating and bluster there is in fact a very vulnerable soul.  Which I would still never vote for.

The past few elections in Canada, and the upcoming American presidential contest, have brought to the forefront of the public consciousness a hideous scorched earth form of political campaign where nothing is off limits.  Effective government leadership demands that the best people step forward, and how will we encourage those folks to step out into the spotlight when the mere public rumination of a run for office can spark the filthiest invective from the opposition in response?  The silent demographic who do not vote because they cannot abide the cynicism of politics are not silent without cause.  They have been systematically alienated from a public debate that operates on the intellectual level of a high school cat fight.  It’s all too tempting for liberals to want to get down into the mud and fight just as dirty as their conservative counterparts, but doing that only accomplishes two things – it accepts with resignation the premise that government and public service is the realm of savages, and often engenders sympathy for the opponent (and by accidental consequence, the opponent’s argument).  It takes more courage to stand up to a bully with words instead of fists.  But sometimes, a victory won with words – the right words – can be all the more decisive.  Canadian and American progressives may dream of a day when right-wing parties are a nausea-inducing anathema to the voting public, but we won’t get there by calling Conservatives and Republicans fatty-Mcfat-fats.

A comedian whose name I can’t recall once opined that it was stupid to be a racist, because if you got to know the person really well you could find a much better reason to hate their guts.  Likewise, it’s ridiculous to go after Rob Ford because of his weight.  He could be the most drool-worthy, sculpted embodiment of Adonis on the planet and still be a lousy mayor.  Call him misguided, call his policies ludicrous, call his approach to governing positively inept, but if the guy wants a bucket of extra crispy chicken for dinner after a bad day, leave him the frack alone.