Monday, March 1, 2010

Good Stuff

Martin Wolf on deficit spending, the debt, and stimulus

Jonathan Chait on the use of the racism and anti-semtism cards

Roger Lowenstein on how Wall Street got post-modern: (hint: they're both too "meta")

Film Clip Break

The stunning montage from Alan J. Pakula's 1974 film, "The Parallax View."

Some Recurring Themes in the Year in Movies

Delivering bad news on major current events issues:
Up in the Air (unemployment)
The Messenger (Iraq)

A selfish man unable/uninterested to make (mostly filial) connections:
Up in the Air
Funny People

Non-human species who live in a tree and are attacked by villainous humans:
Fantastic Mr. Fox

Leaving home, embarking on odyssey, and then returning:
Where the Wild Things Are


What's Wrong with America: Exhibit B

Jim Bunning (and one man's power in the Senate).

What's Wrong with America: Exhibit A

Perfect evidence to demonstrate our government's inability to deal constructively with domestic policy:

Four months ago, it appeared all but certain that the White House and Democrats in Congress would succeed in overhauling the student loan business and ending government subsidies to private lenders.

President Obama called the idea a “no-brainer” last fall, predicting it would take billions of dollars from the profits of private lenders and give it directly to students, and many colleges were already moving to get loans directly from the federal government in anticipation of the next move by Congress. But an aggressive lobbying campaign by the nation’s biggest student lenders has now put one of the White House’s signature plans in peril, with lenders using sit-downs with lawmakers, town-hall-style meetings and petition drives to plead their case and stay in business.

As it stands, private lenders serve as "middle men" between the government and students to provide loans. The private lenders are subsidized by taxpayers, but if a borrower defaults, the government still picks up the tab. As the Times observes, "Private lenders get a cut of the federally backed loans that they originate and service, with little risk of their own." So what's the point of privatized, subsidized middle men if they run no risk of defaults? It's a lose-lose for the taxpayer. Good question.

Unsurprisingly, private lenders fighting this legislation, like Sallie Mae, are describing the plan as a "government takeover." This is deeply ironic of course, because, again, the government already has taken over the risk part of the student loan market, they just left the profit part to private lenders. This happened when Congress wanted to ensure access to student loans to those might not otherwise be able to qualify; in doing so, they guaranteed to cover any losses at the hands of private lenders.

If this sounds vaguely familiar the housing crisis, it's because an analogous (though not identical), story took place. The government wanted to encourage people to buy homes, and risky loans from Fannie Mae were guaranteed by the taxpayer. They weren't guaranteed by the taxpayer in the case of completely by private lenders like Citi and Bank of America, but alas, their losses were guaranteed by the taxpayer as well. It seems like a good way to solve this issue, whether in student loans or housing is fairly simple: if we're going to socialize risk, let's socialize profit too. And if we're going to privatize profit, privatize the risk also. (In the health sector, a different story is taking place, but on the fundamental question of efficiency opponents speak of a similar "government takeover.")

So why is news of a lobbying effort evidence of what's wrong with America? Well if it's not self-evident, let me explain: We have a political system that seems to be incapable of making good public policy. Republican politicians fuel anti-government fervor in their rhetoric and then come to Washington and proceed to subsidize and protect the interests of a few corporations that are rich enough to buy protection through gigantic lobbying efforts in the name of "limited government." What a load of claptrap. As far as Congress goes, the entire notion of limited government is mostly non-existant. Instead we simply have big government that subsidizes powerful industries instead of ordinary people. Hopefully, the Senate will pass student loan reform, make the system more efficient, and consequently prove me wrong. But it must first defeat the lobbying efforts of taxpayer subsidized middle men.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Health Care Divide

It seems like all this Republican obstructionism amounts to them saying, "Hey, pass a Republican bill!" to which Barack Obama replies "but I'm a Democrat." Then they say "but America hates that." But we had a whole election with three debates for each side to share their ideas on health care in detail. Barack Obama shared his vision for reforming health care, and then won the election, and then tried to enact health care that largely resembled his campaign positions. He is still a Democrat. And I don't think he's going to change party and/or ideology any time soon.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts on 'Inglorious Basterds'

As I see it, there are primarily two kinds of complaints against Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglorious Basterds.' The first is that the film makes a joke out of and/or takes the events of the Holocaust and World War Two lightly. This is improper and problematic. The second complaint is a typical Tarantino complaint: the movie is about nothing, a mere exercise in style over substance.

Frankly, when I take the time to evaluate both of these arguments, I find them to be pretty compelling. And yet I must say, when I sat down to watch 'Inglorious Basterds' I became immersed in its story and characters. Simply put, it was a thrilling moviegoing experience. Trying to evaluate or process the movie through the context of WWII seems pointless; in my view, the movie has nothing to do with the war outside of using it as a setting in time and space. (Still, the argument goes, Tarantino is making use of events and places that he shouldn't be. I can't argue with that.) If the movie is about anything at all, it's about movies.

Which brings me to my main point. Is this movie nothing but an empty, substance-less, stylized exercise? The very fact that I enjoyed a movie this much compels me to think that there must be something interesting going on there. (I know I didn't enjoy it the same way I enjoy, say, Die Hard or Old School.) I suppose it deserves a second viewing, but I think there is definitely something to be discussed relating to the idea of the power of cinema. Both within the movie (in the final scene) and the movie itself, there is a suggestion that the movies can serve as a means of extracting revenge, righting wrongs, and revising history to create certain myths.

Believing movies have this sort of power would make sense coming from someone like Tarantino, who seems to have grown up in a movie theater. But for those who haven't had the luxury, their belief in the power of cinema probably isn't as strong. They're probably right, and that might be the ultimate problem with the film.