Tag Archives: Democrats

A House of Cards Divided

houseofcards

“Want to know about politics in Washington?  Four words:  Watch your back, Jack.” – Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), Clear and Present Danger

Having just released its second complete season, House of Cards remains a meal that refuses to go down smoothly, no matter how sumptuous it might appear.  You can admire the artistry in the execution, but afterwards, you always feel like you need a shower – rather like looking at a painting hung in a porta-potty.  For years the optimism and hope of The West Wing was my lifeblood and so experiencing a show like HofC that responds to that philosophy by essentially defecating on it (again with the toilet metaphors, dude) will always be a fundamentally unsettling experience.  You just don’t want to believe that people are capable of that sort of thing, even though grasping the promise of the light mandates the acknowledgement of the existence of darkness.

WARNING:  Massive Season 2 Spoilers follow.  Abandon all hope (of being surprised), ye who enter here.

The sociopathic Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are the focal point of that darkness, emerging from it literally as the first episode of Season 2 begins.  Frank has been appointed Vice-President of the United States following his elaborate scheme in the previous season that saw his predecessor maneuvered into stepping down to run for his old office of Governor of Pennsylvania.  There remain several loose ends, in the form of journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her associates, and call girl Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), both instrumental in Frank’s secret wheelings and dealings.  Rachel is whisked into exile by Frank’s majordomo Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), while Zoe, growing increasingly convinced that Underwood murdered troubled Congressman Peter Russo last season, is dealt with in one of the most brutally shocking twists in episodic TV in years.  (How many other shows have the audacity to kill off the opening credits third-billed lead – played by a rising young actress – in a season premiere?)  Culminating in a closing shot of Frank’s monogrammed cufflinks (that read, unsubtly, “F.U.”), the implication to the audience is that this year, all bets are off.

And yet, oddly, they’re not.

Frank is back to business as usual, getting Jackie Sharp (Canadian actress Molly Parker), his preferred choice for replacement as Majority Whip in place, and driving wedges between the frustratingly naive President Garrett Walker (Michel Gill) and his mentor and friend of many years, billionaire Raymond Tusk (Gerald McRaney) by nearly starting a war with China.  Claire works on the First Couple from her end as well, cultivating a friendship with Mrs. Walker (Joanna Going) and motivating her to convince her husband to attend couples therapy – the revelation of which will ultimately prove politically toxic.  As with the previous season, the endgame for the Underwoods is never fully articulated until the closing moments of the final episode, yet there is a sense of inevitability about where the story is going that renders the proceedings a bit pat, and moot.  Compounding this notion is the fact that Frank always wins, and never at any point do we get the sense that he is in any danger of losing.  The only real consequence Frank suffers throughout the season is when his beloved rib joint has to close its doors – and nary more than a moment is spent ruing that.

Half the problem, and this affected the first season as well, is a budgetary one.  Spacey and Wright are major stars and don’t work cheap, and with their salaries devouring the lion’s share of the casting budget, the remainder must be spread around sparingly, resulting in a roster of supporting players who are well-meaning and capable but simply don’t have the raw wattage of the two leads, and can’t hope to outshine (or even strike within a country mile of equaling) them.  Gill in particular doesn’t have the gravitas we’ve come to expect in the portrayal of a President (no Martin Sheen he), and it’s difficult to keep in mind that this is supposed to be a man whom Underwood championed for the Oval Office, and supported without hesitation until being passed over for the job of Secretary of State – let alone one who managed to win a national election.  (Unless he was running against an anthropomorphic sheet of drywall.)

The other half of the equation lies in the writing of Frank’s adversaries, who for reasons of plot necessity allow themselves to be duped, make stupid decisions and side with the Underwoods rather than with the truth.  The animosity generated by Frank between President Walker and Raymond Tusk could have been swept aside by the long-term friends sharing one private phone call, but naturally, this doesn’t happen, and in the end Walker abandons Tusk to a perp walk after one dark-heart-felt personal letter from Frank.  It also strains credulity that a ruling party would be so quick to bring its own President up on impeachment charges, as is threatened in the finale.  Granted, in the show it’s the Democrats doing it (their real-life contemporaries ever ready to cut allies loose in the interest of political expediency instead of walking lock-step into the flames like the Republicans do), but you’d think at least one loyal Walker soldier might be able to assemble the pieces and realize that all the trouble originates from the moment a certain Mr. Underwood stepped onto the stage.  No matter – in the end, all enemies are swept or willingly step aside, Walker resigns, and a duplicitous double-murderer takes the Oath of Office, pounding the Resolute Desk in the season’s final shot in a gesture of either triumph or foreboding, depending on your interpretation.

House of Cards has been renewed for a third season, with rumors that it will be its last.  I find it difficult to imagine it could venture any further.  Once you’ve ascended the mountain, the only way to go is down.  I’m mindful though of the comments made by David Chase of The Sopranos, who scoffed at the idea that audiences should crave a comeuppance for Tony Soprano after they cheered on his spree of theft, betrayal and murder for season after season.  What will happen to Frank Underwood?  Like Dexter Morgan, there is no sufficient legal reciprocity for the magnitude of his crimes.  A mea culpa is beyond his capacity.  And it simply isn’t dramatically interesting to watch him keep winning battle after battle – the machinations of an untouchable god, become, after a time, unengaging television.

If you’re looking for clues to his demise, you can see seeds sown in the closing moments of this season’s final chapter, with Doug being killed and left to rot in the woods by Rachel, the end of a somewhat pitiable obsession with her that had developed over several episodes.  (That storyline reveals another intriguing notion about the portrayal of men and women, given that Rachel remains under Doug’s thumb until the split second she realizes that he wants her sexually – then his downfall begins.  A post for another time.)  If season 3 is to be The Fall of Frank Underwood, then the reason for keeping Rachel front and center in the storyline becomes clear.  Those who manage to undo powerful men will never be powerful themselves – they will arise from the unexpected corner, seemingly insignificant and non-threatening.  Not to be forgotten either is the besieged hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) who begins to reassert his independence from the feds and has unfettered access to where everyone’s digital bodies are buried.  The advantage also of focusing on either of these characters is that they remain virtually the only two people in this corrupted universe you can find yourself rooting for – even though they have both committed crimes themselves.

Or, Frank’s undoing will come in the shape of his one indispensable ally:  Claire.  As the Second Lady, Wright seemed a little sidelined this season, particularly in its latter half, as her character’s journey took a backseat to the increasingly complex web spun by her husband.  But apart from one fleeting moment of remorse that when past hardened her heart even further, Claire remains as vicious as Frank and as dedicated to the idea of absolute power.  Two such identical forces cannot remain together forever, as anyone who’s tried to clap magnets against one another is well aware.  They have already shown, in the episode that climaxed (sorry, bad pun) in a threesome with their Secret Service agent Meecham, that either one of them is not enough for the other.  Perhaps the ultimate house of cards to be toppled is the Underwoods’ commitment to each other.

It’s telling about our nature that even in stories about bad guys, we crave the triumph of the good.  And good never wins on House of Cards.  Frank’s manipulations succeed at every turn because he has a gift for recognizing weak points and flickers of evil in others, and like the classic tempter, convincing them to make the wrong choice of their own free will.  The conventions of drama, however, lead us to wonder how this plays out.  Psychological need asks whether good will indeed crawl out from under the bed after taking a pummeling for two straight seasons.  The Sopranos, which chose an open ending with the scales of morality tilted permanently out of balance left an unpalatable taste in many mouths.  As much as TV audiences might relish watching Frank Underwood slice and dice his way to his diabolical goals, Americans as a whole likely aren’t comforted by the idea that such an archetypally evil person could manipulate his way into the Presidency in real life (regardless of your partisan opinions of occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania past and present).  They’ll want to see him go down, brutally, in a spectacular orgy of cathartic release, as charming as that come-and-go South Carolina drawl may be.  It might finally lend that terribly bitter pill a teensy touch of candy coating.

In any case, a question to be left to series creator Beau Willimon and his writing staff.  Besides, if I need my idealism fix, I’ll always have my complete West Wing DVD set.

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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.