New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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The Case Against the Corporate Tax

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As the new Congress gets set to liberate America from the stranglehold of the freshly defeated Red Congress, hopes for change are arising. One is the hope for a lowering of the US corporate tax rate.

This rate is a hefty 35%, second highest among the developed economies of the world. It seems obvious, just considering basic psychology, that lowering the corporate tax will be economically beneficial. It is a truism of behaviorist psychology that if you punish (negatively reinforce) a behavior you get less of it, and if you reward (positively reinforce) a behavior you get more of it. Corporate taxes punish business activity, resulting in less business — great if you are a leftist, but lousy if you are anyone else.

The Heritage Foundation has released the results of a study by economists Karen Campbell and John Ligon that spells out the case for lowering corporate taxes, called The Economic Impact of a 25 Percent Corporate Income Tax Rate. Campbell and Ligon ran a simulation of the economic impact of lowering the corporate tax from 35% to 25%. The results are eye-opening.

Their simulation (which covers the period 2011 to 2020) estimates that under the lower taxes, GDP would grow by an extra $132 billion annually, creating over 530,000 new private-sector jobs per year. The average family of four would see its after-tax yearly income go up by nearly $2,500. Gross private investment would rise by over $57 billion annually, and foreign assets in the US would rise by 4% annually. American capital stock would grow by $240 billion more a year, and real after-tax corporate profits would increase by an average of $124 billion a year over the current projected levels.

Notwithstanding all this, it is questionable whether Obama will ever allow a drop in corporate tax rates. He is instinctively anti-business, and although the economic case is compelling, he is the most economically ignorant president in recent history.




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What's in a Brand?

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People often complain that the tea partiers confuse socialism, fascism, and communism.  These people argue that the three have distinct definitions and different ideologies.

Well, Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac are not the same car. They are, however, different nameplates on similar products, with many parts manufactured by the same people.  They'll all take you to the same place, though some will do it faster.




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Jolly Old Elves

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Never Play Monopoly with Uncle Sam

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On December 13, 2010, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson ruled in Virginia v. Sebelius that the individual mandate included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (PPACA), popularly known as Obamacare, is unconstitutional. (Hudson’s ruling is available as a PDF here.) Does the government have the power to compel people to buy private health insurance? The answer to that question will soon be in the hands of the Supreme Court.

That Judge Hudson did not refer to United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Association (S.E.U.A.) in his decision struck me as odd, probably because I have not studied law. It is likely that Judge Hudson did not refer to the 1944 ruling because it had no bearing on his decision. Still, as it was the only Supreme Court case that the drafters of the PPACA cited in the part of the law intended to make the individual mandate seem constitutional, my curiosity was piqued.

What follows will review: (1) the part of the PPACA that addresses the constitutionality of the individual mandate, (2) how the mandate might function if the courts waive it through, and (3) the S.E.U.A. case. Only then will 1944 ruling and the 2010 law be examined together. The focus will not be on legal precedents, but on an aspect of the matter with which I am more familiar: bittersweet irony.

Imagine a group of congressional staffers pulling an all-nighter, drafting the healthcare reform legislation. “We can’t use that! Look at the facts!” “Get real! Of course we can! Nobody’s going to read the damn thing!”

The PPACA says the mandate is constitutional because “most health insurance is sold by national or regional health insurance companies, health insurance is sold in interstate commerce and claims payments flow through interstate commerce.” (PPACA, Subtitle F, Part I, Section 1501, (a) (2) (B)).It goes on to say, “In United Statesv. South-Eastern Underwriters Association … (1944)the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that insurance is interstate commerce subject to Federal regulation,” (PPACA, Subtitle F, Part I, Section 1501, (a) (3)). (The consolidated version of the law, after reconciliation, is at ncsl.org.)

Briefly, then, unless the Supreme Court agrees with Hudson, the PPACA will, beginning on January 1, 2014, compel otherwise uninsured people to buy health insurance policies. Such policies will not be crafted to meet the needs of those being compelled to buy them. Instead, they will be “one size fits all” policies crafted to meet the government’s funding needs. For example, there will be no high deductible, catastrophic care policies, nor will there be policies that exclude such things as mental health care.

Additionally, the premiums for these policies will not be based on the real risk factors of the person being insured, but rather on a modified community rating that will compel low-risk purchasers to pay many times more than what would be justified using an actuarial table. The prices that companies charge for the policies will be regulated by the government as well, ensuring that they are steep enough to pay for the services that the high-risk policy holders require. Planned government subsidies notwithstanding, should someone choose not to purchase the mandated policy at the regulated price, he will be saddled with a hefty fine, attached to his tax bill. Should he refuse to pay the fine, he could, under existing tax law, be jailed. (For a good overview, read Hazards of the Individual Health Care Mandate at cato.org.)

Now, what was the South-Eastern Underwriters Association case about? Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, describes a group of insurance companies (the S.E.U.A.) violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by conspiring to “restrain interstate trade and commerce by fixing and maintaining arbitrary and non-competitive premium rates” on fire insurance policies. These companies “not only fixed premium rates and agents’ commissions, but employed boycotts together with other types of coercion and intimidation to force non-member insurance companies into the conspiracies, and to compel persons who needed insurance to buy only from S.E.U.A. members.” In addition, Black tells how the companies saw to it that those who were “not members of S.E.U.A. were cut off from the opportunity to reinsure their risks, and their services and facilities were disparaged; independent sales agencies who defiantly represented non-S.E.U.A. companies were punished by a withdrawal of the right to represent the members of S.E.U.A.; and persons needing insurance who purchased from non-S.E.U.A. companies were threatened with boycotts and withdrawal of all patronage.” (Openjurist.com has the entire ruling.)

So. The only Supreme Court ruling cited in the healthcare law to support the notion that the individual mandate is constitutional upheld the lower court decisions to: (1) break up a conspiracy to monopolize and otherwise control what had been a free insurance market, (2) punish conspirators for fixing premiums instead of allowing free-market competition to determine price and product, and (3) bring an end to the use of coercion and intimidation to force customers to buy the cartel’s insurance policies and to force companies to join in a scheme to control the insurance market.

Of course, those who drafted the PPACA cited the 1944 case because Justice Black was, for the first time, placing insurance companies under the sway of the interstate commerce clause, which gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce … among the several States” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). But ask yourself, Did these drafters read the facts of the S.E.U.A. case? If they did, citing it in the law was an act of legislative chutzpah. After all, Justice Black was on the side of the intimidated, the coerced, not the conspirators doing the intimidating.

Imagine a group of congressional staffers pulling an all-nighter, drafting the healthcare reform legislation. “We can’t use that! Look at the facts!” “Get real! Of course we can! Nobody’s going to read the damn thing!” Only a handful of people did. How many read the 2,700-page bill prior to the vote? Surely it was many more than followed up on passing references to ancient fire insurance disputes.

Forgive my obtuseness, but as it was the drafters themselves who placed the 1944 antitrust ruling in Section 1501(a)(3) of the text of the PPACA, would not the Supreme Court be free to raise the facts of that case despite the fact that Judge Hudson made no reference to it? And if the court is free to raise these facts, might there not be an opportunity to ask the defenders of the individual mandate how it is that they see the ruling as supporting their cause, when, practically speaking, Justice Black was condemning exactly the kind of power-grab that they are championing.

After all, now it is the United States government itself that is playing the part of the South-Eastern Underwriters Association, forcing the health insurance industry into a government-controlled cartel, essentially monopolizing what was once a free market, fixing both the product and the price, and using coercion and intimidation to gain the compliance of people and companies alike.

I never thought I’d say this, but this is one trust that is ripe for busting.




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The Mother of All Unintended Consequences

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A number of unanticipated consequences of Obamacare have appeared, even before the major provisions take effect.

Thousands of elderly people have lost their Medicare Advantage plans, insurance companies have been forced to jack up their rates to cover the myriad of new mandates, many insurance companies have eliminated child-only policies, and over a hundred companies and unions — many of them supporters of the Obama administration — have been given waivers from the disastrous bill by the selfsame administration that inflicted it upon the nation.

But the mother of all unintended consequences of Obamacare may be coming down the pike in 2014. That is the year when the healthcare plan dumps 16 million people (and even more, if illegal aliens aren’t excluded) on Medicaid. Medicaid is the program that already covers at least 62 million poorer Americans.

Medicaid is partly funded by the federal government, but almost half the costs are paid by the states. It is a heavy burden on them even in the best of times, and some of them now border on insolvency.

Rick Perry of Texas was the first governor to talk about withdrawing from Medicaid and substituting a less expensive alternative devised by Texans, following the tastes of Texans. But now similar ideas are being discussed by officials in Nevada, South Carolina, Washington, and Wyoming.

Will this group of free thinkers regarding Medicaid swell as we get closer to 2014, the Year of the Great Dump? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, “You betcha!”




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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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Wait ’Til Next Year

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John Maynard Keynes is the Chicago Cubs of economics. In both cases, repeated failure has been rewarded with undying fanatical devotion.

Meanwhile, I am weary of watching our "brilliant” president blame his predecessor for the economic woes the nation still suffers. True genius confronts adversity. Thomas Edison never once blamed the darkness.




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Stimulate This

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As stories pile up about how the money from Obama’s massive stimulus bill was spent, it is becoming clear why the money stimulated few jobs. Two recent stories illustrate this.

First is the report from Randolph, Massachusetts, on how that city spent $4.6 million in scarce taxpayer dollars from the stimulus funds.

The lucky district took its windfall cash and repaired — a horse bridge! Yes, the horseshit project connected two parts of the 238-acre “Blue Hills Reservation,” making it easier for horseback riders and pedestrians to wander freely therein.

An owner of a local equestrian center was of course delighted at this pork project: “I was psyched. I thought, Whoo-hoo, new bridge!” Her defense — standard for anyone who has never read Bastiat — was, “How many other misappropriations have been given through the state for financial funding?” In other words, it benefits me, and the state has approved other senseless projects, so what’s the big deal?

A local bureaucrat, one Wendy Fox, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that the bridge was popular and often used, though she couldn’t give any numbers. The horses on the farm on one side of the bridge total 30, and those on the other side total 20  — which averages about $92,000 per horse to build the bridge.

Then there is the happy news that nearly 90,000 people who got “stimulus payments” were either prisoners or . . . corpses. The thinking must have been that the cash would go beyond stimulation and into the realm of resurrection.

Yes, 72,000 stimulus checks (each for $250 of loot stolen from taxpayers) went to deceased people, in anticipation of one last blast. Seventeen thousand more payments were sent to prison inmates. And only about half the money has been returned.

Your tax dollars at work.




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The Epistemology of Christmas: Advanced Course

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