One Trillion Dollars

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A cartoon by Tom Toles in the Washington Post shows an elephant flinging money out of a box. The caption: “Socialism wins the Republican Primary.” He is referring, of course, to the Great Coronavirus Bailout.

At the top of an economic cycle, with unemployment the lowest in 40 years, the Trump administration, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House were already running trillion-dollar annual deficits. Now our Republican president doubles down. He proposes emergency borrowing of another trillion, which will push the annual deficit-to-GDP ratio higher than in any year of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The markets don’t mind. As I write, the cost for the Treasury to burrow 30-year money is at an historic low of 1.55%, and for short money it is effectively zero. The market’s message: take all you want.

The president proposes emergency borrowing of another trillion, which will push the annual deficit-to-GDP ratio higher than in any year of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Democrats love it. This is something they understand. On CNN, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, suggests spending $2 trillion. At least $2 trillion. Gene Sperling, an economic expert in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is asked whether there is any reason to worry about the size of this. Absolutely not, he says. No time for that! Just do it!

You’d think that Republicans would object. I note that Henry Olsen, the house Republican on the editorial page of the Washington Post, has a column titled, “Republicans Need to Go Bigger on Coronavirus. Much Bigger.” Even Megan McArdle, the Post’s columnist closest to my way of thinking, has a column titled, “A Libertarian’s Unlikely Pandemic Plea: Subsidize Everything.”

The market’s message: take all you want.

Stop. Let’s think about this first.

Two arguments are offered, practical and moral, for this eruption of dollars. The practical one is that if it is not done, America will fall into a depression. That is presented as a matter beyond discussion.

Is it? This is not like the Great Depression. That one did not begin with people suddenly shunning restaurants, sports stadiums, and international travel. There was a crash in the stock market, to be sure, but the more important event was the failure of national governments to pay the money they owed. Germany, which had been saddled with war reparations by the Treaty of Versailles, could not pay Britain and France, which in turn could not pay the United States. In the United States, investment bankers had been lending Germany the money to pay Britain and France, and that stopped, too. The whole structure of international debts fell apart. Wall Street had lent huge sums to Latin American governments, and they defaulted. In Seattle, where I live, the major office buildings and hotels built in the 1920s had been financed by bonds, and they defaulted. Thousands of owners of bonds — German bonds, Brazilian bonds, Cuban bonds, and local bonds — saw their assets shrink to pennies on the dollar. The bond market was shut to new borrowers on any kind of reasonable terms.

That is nothing like what is happening today. Today’s mess began with the government ordering great swaths of a strong economy to shut down to protect the public health. This is not an economic event at all, but a public health event with economic effects.

The Great Depression did not begin with people suddenly shunning restaurants, sports stadiums, and international travel.

This is more like an earthquake, a flood, or a fire, except that there is no tangible wreckage to clear away. No structures need to be rebuilt. The restaurant near my house stands ready for business, its tables set with napkins, silverware, and water glasses, except that no customers are allowed sit down.

What needs to be rebuilt are structures of an intangible sort: contracts. There will be startup costs, but how large can those be?

From my TV I hear no one suggesting that the restaurant owners, sports team owners, cruise ship owners, and airlines bear these costs themselves — that the costs are generally within their ability to bear and that the owners should bear them. Maybe I’ve missed the powerful appeals for self-reliance because I’m tuned to CNN, and CNN talks only to Democrats. I assume that if my concern for self-reliance were being voiced by public figures, the Democrats on CNN would be arguing against them, and they’re not. They are speaking as if no one would deign to dispute their superior wisdom.

The talking heads whose voices fill my home are making a moral argument that the shutdown is not the public’s fault. The government shut down the airlines, the cruise-ship lines, and the restaurants, and therefore the government should compensate them. But the government did that to protect people from a virus. Well, then, the matter is not one of fault, but of necessity. Does the government need to compensate for the side effects of life-saving action? If the government shut down one business because it was a threat to the public health, when the threat was not that business’ fault, an argument could be made to compensate the owners of that business by taxing everyone else a little bit. But when government shuts down a broad swath of industry across the entire country for a short time — and it is going to be a short time, right? — the argument for compensation is less convincing.

This is not an economic event at all, but a public health event with economic effects.

The voices I hear are arguing that government needs to help the little guy, who will be faced with the choice between paying for food and paying the rent. I am reminded of the assertion by Bernie Sanders — remember him? — that half of all Americans have no savings. I have known a number of persons who had no savings, and in every case, it was because they chose to live that way. Of course my experience is not everyone’s. Still, it is disturbing to hear political figures speak as if it’s wrong to expect people to have savings and to make hard choices.

If you cannot pay for food and rent, and you have no savings, you have a hard choice. You can borrow money from the bank, or from your family, or from friends. You can borrow food. You can ask the landlord to wait. You can stiff him and dare him to evict you, in the hope that he won’t because evictions are expensive, and take time. If you’re a good tenant, maybe he will cut you some slack, particularly if he’s under social and political pressure not to kick you out, or in a rental market in which too many other tenants have been kicked out. There has been a loss, and there may be a jockeying for power among you, your landlord, and your landlord’s bank, to decide who will eat the loss. And that’s life. It is not clear to me why the government should eat the loss.

And I now hear that government should make up all losses, even small ones. Unemployment insurance cannot meet the need because it covers close to half the lost wages. The aid package would have to cover it all. And the matter of school lunches: when schools started serving free and reduced-cost lunches (and breakfasts!) to children from low-income families, the argument was that if their stomachs weren’t full, they couldn’t learn. The free meals were an educational necessity. That was the argument — the entire argument. Now the schools are closed, and a wail goes up: What are the children to eat? Who is to feed them? And nobody dares suggest that children should be fed by the people who have been feeding children for millennia.

By Cuomo's logic, why should New York pay at all? Have the federal government pay!

Thus is 21st-century life. We have a disaster, and no American can be expected to absorb any losses, to make any hard choices, or to be self-reliant in any but the most trivial ways. The risk is all on the government — and the federal government, too, because only the federal government can vomit up cash by the trillions. Even the state governments are reduced to the status of children. As I write, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, is on CNN (his brother, Chris Cuomo, works there) arguing that the federal government needs to nationalize the production of medical equipment through a Truman-era law called the Defense Production Act. The government of New York wants to buy surgical masks and ventilators, and the other state governments have bid the price up. Governor Cuomo finds this very unfair. It is much fairer and more equitable, he believes, to compel entrepreneurs to supply as many masks and ventilators as the state declares it needs at a price the state deems fair to pay.

By his logic, why should New York pay at all? Have the federal government pay! Like Tom Toles’ elephant, the federal government has the money box. It’s a federal box. It can produce money for nothing, money that is a claim on the labor of you and me and our descendants; it can fling one trillion, two trillion, many trillions into the air and watch it flutter down to the sad victims on the ground. Drop it on Carnival Cruise Lines! Drop it on Andrew Cuomo! Drop it on me! We all wait to be saved.




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Yammering, Hectoring, and Infantilizing

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Not since I was stuck in a hospital in February 2016 during the runup to Super Tuesday have I had CNN on all the time. Usually I don’t watch CNN. Being “self-quarantined” in a national crisis — a real one — I watch it. There is much on CNN that is intelligent and relevant, which is why I watch and listen. But there is much also that is inflammatory and biased.

Much of the problem is the playing-up of panic. All reporters are trained to play up stories, to sharpen them, to bring out the conflict and emotion. I was a newspaper reporter years ago, and I know that to some degree they have to do this. Each person in the chain of news reporting is a kind of salesman. The reporters are trying to “make a sale” to their immediate editors, and they, in turn, are trying to sell their stories to the top editors, and the top editors are trying to grab and hold the attention of the public. But when you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story. If you are reporting on an irrational panic — a nation of morons out to buy up all the toilet paper — you should report it in a way that doesn’t prompt hoi polloi to clean out all the canned chili and frozen pot pies. For media people, this sort of restraint goes against what they are.

Some are worse than others. On March 12 I watched CNN host Don Lemon browbeat commentator John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio. Kasich, a moderate Republican, ran against Trump in 2016 for the presidential nomination. He’s the antithesis of a Trump lackey. Kasich was on CNN just after President Trump addressed the nation about COVID-19 and announced the travel restrictions from Europe. Kasich was there to comment. His comment was that finally, after underplaying the epidemic, Trump had set the right tone.

When you’re in a genuine crisis, you already have the attention of the public. In that situation, you should think about the social effect of your story.

Lemon didn’t argue with Trump’s tone, but he brushed Kasich’s comment aside. What Lemon wanted to talk about, and Kasich to talk about, was that one of Trump’s statements about the travel restrictions had had to be corrected. The president, Lemon said, was giving “mixed messages”; he was confusing the people. To Kasich, however, having to correct an error was a minor thing. The correction had been made within the hour. The important thing was that Trump was taking the medical experts seriously and acting seriously.

“I think he set a serious tone; that's what I wanted out for him for a long time, and I think we got it,” Kasich said.

To Lemon, the important thing was to remind viewers that Trump had been wrong for two months. When Kasich insisted on talking about what Trump had just said, Lemon said, “You’re deflecting.”

I thought, “No. You’re deflecting.”

Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought.

I understand the ethic of media people trying to extract truth from politicians who posture and lie — and Trump is no innocent in that regard. But Lemon was being unreasonable. Yes, in hindsight, Trump had been slow to respond to the epidemic. It’s all right to mention that, but the story is, the news is, he’s engaged now. It’s important to criticize the powerful when they fall short, but it’s just as important to credit them when they are on the mark. Public praise emboldens a leader to do more of the things that are praised, and it encourages others to cooperate and support him. Here was a case when Trump had improved, and dramatically so. The media needed to praise him for that — and Lemon kicked him. As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”

One of the most common kicks is Why Didn’t You Do This Before? I watched a press conference at which Trump announced some measures on the coronavirus. The reporters wanted to know: why didn’t you do this before? Sometimes this question can be reasonable, but it is also a question that requires no thought. Whatever a leader does, he can be asked why he didn’t do it yesterday. If you hear reporters at press conferences asking that question enough times, it reminds you of barking dogs.

On the news today was a story, which some group in the government reported months ago, that the federal government wasn’t ready for an epidemic. The “they knew and they did nothing” story is another that is entirely predictable. Every time a bridge falls into the Mississippi, or some such, we learn that some engineer warned months before that the bridge was bad. This happens again and again, and people wonder, “What’s the matter with our stupid leaders?” Fine; there’s plenty wrong. But governments are made up of individuals, some of them diligent and some of them drones, all working under bureaucrats who hoard information and jockey for power. And on top of this heap is one man with a limited brain whose demonstrable skill was that he could manipulate millions of Americans into voting for him. Should he take warnings from the nobodies on the bottom more seriously? Sure — but how would that work, exactly?

As the old song went, “Kick him when he’s up, kick him when he’s down!”

And then there is the question of magnitude. I live in an earthquake zone. Every once in a while, we get media stories telling us to be ready for The Big One. These stories have some good effects — I see public buildings reinforced with steel and concrete pillars under freeway bridges sheathed with steel, etc. I have screwed my bookcases into the wall, bought earthquake insurance and a few other things. I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is. And if we get one, and all the old brick apartment houses collapse, and other houses are knocked off their foundations, I’m sure some smartypants will say, “You were warned.” And he will be right: we were.

Smartypants reporters ask, “Why did you (Trump) get tested if you told the American people not to get tested unless they had symptoms?” The same thing came up regarding professional athletes: “Why should they get tested when others can’t?” (Trump’s answer: “That’s life.”)

I am ready for an ordinary earthquake, but am I really ready for The Big One? Not really. Nobody is.

Many of the questions the reporters are throwing at the president are obviously put to them by other people. When reporters demand to know how many surgical masks will be available, and by what day and who will get them first, they are channeling their hometown politicians and hospital administrators — and also their hometown editors. (I can just hear an editor, yammering in the reporter’s ear: “Dammit, what are we paying you for? Pin the weasel down! Get specifics!”) But having all these media people hectoring, beseeching, imploring the Leader for definite, detailed, bankable results is acting as if the people were children waiting to be saved.

We’re not that. At least I hope so. Former Liberty editor Tim Virkkala writes in his blog, “We must not become a cargo cult, praying for the lordly President to bring us all the goodies of a mysterious, magical civilization.”

As I write, CNN is still on. Much of the time the news people are talking to doctors and public health officials. The news people ask good questions. They mostly get good answers, and they treat the interviewees with decorum and respect. But that is not how they treat the president or anyone, such as Kasich, who defends even one of his speeches. The CNN people really do go out of their way not to say anything good about Donald Trump, no matter what he does.




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In Praise of Business

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All week I’ve been receiving emails from the companies I do business with, telling me what they are doing to keep customers safe during the coronavirus scare. My airline companies have waived cancellation and change fees to help me navigate my changing travel plans. When Royal Caribbean was forced to cancel a cruise I was set to take next week, they not only waived the cancellation fee, they offered me a 125% credit if I would reschedule my trip and sail with them sometime before December 2021. Numerous online teaching resources have offered links to their study guides for harried parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling — and they aren’t charging a fee for the service. Distilleries began making hand sanitizer from their castoff alcohol. Meanwhile, my local grocery store has had all hands on deck for the past two weeks, continually restocking the shelves and checking customers through the lines as quickly as possible without a break. And still they offer to help me to my car. With a smile.

As the crisis has deepened, restaurants have stepped in to help. Chick-fil-A has delivered mountains of hot meals to hospital workers — for free. Whataburger, headquartered in Texas, has delivered food to exhausted employees at H-E-B grocery stores — for free. And Jimmy John's sandwich shops have vowed to provide meals for at-risk kids during the school closures — for free. Amazon has stepped up its delivery service, hiring over 100,000 new employees so that valued customers can receive needed goods — including food — at our own homes. Not for free, but at their normal prices.

No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free.

There is nothing like American business. This is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about “the invisible hand” of the marketplace. No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free. In fact, government told private labs to stand down when they were ready to develop and distribute test kits. Yet there they are, anticipating needs, increasing their orders, doubling their staffs, and limiting the sales of certain items (hand sanitizers, toilet paper) through an appeal to good will rather than strict rationing. I shudder to think how all of this will change if our mayors decide to get in on the act and commandeer the stores.

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over. The educational companies such as National Scholastic who give their resources for free today are likely to have new customers tomorrow. And the CEO of Albertsons will go to bed with a satisfied smile, knowing that because he doubled and redoubled the efforts of his employees, you and I will have enough nonperishables to last through a quarantine — and even enough toilet paper. (Although that seemed doubtful two weeks ago, Georgia Pacific has ramped up its factories to keep up with demand.)

Meanwhile, I am concerned about the performers and amateur athletes and musicians and artists and event organizers whose livelihoods are already a bit tenuous. Competition for a gig is always so stiff, and one’s shelf life, especially for athletes, is so brief. Can they survive a season of cancellations? Will performing arts theaters bounce back, or do they face bankruptcy from the forced closings?

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over.

I’m even more concerned about the barbers, restaurant workers, amusement park attendants, and other modest earners who are out of work right now — will they be able to pay the rent and other bills?

Over the weekend I saw businesses adjusting to the new social distancing. Retailers were scrubbing their surfaces and spraying their keypads after every customer, and greeters were slowing anxious shoppers as they entered the store. My favorite restaurant took out half its tables in order to keep diners at least six feet away from one another, and they were encouraging take-out rather than dine-in. Movie theaters were selling only 50 tickets per screening so patrons could have at least two seats between them.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust. Universal, for example, has decided to release its new films each week on streaming platforms so they can be viewed at home (great for us, though not so great for the cineplex). Dine-in restaurants are creating pickup lines (great for us, though not so great for the wait staff). Others will innovate as well.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust

As you go forward through these difficult times, consider not requesting a refund for the tickets you’ve purchased to shows, games, and other events that have been canceled. Help the theaters and venues stay alive by accepting a credit for a future event, or letting them keep the money altogether. Leave a tip in the pickup line and ask that it be donated to the wait staff who have been laid off. Offer to help your neighbors who suddenly have children at home during the day with no babysitter and a job they need to keep. Thank the retail workers for being at their jobs during these extra-hectic days.

Be calm. Be patient. Wash your hands. And don’t take the last roll of toilet paper.




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The Failure of Government

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Wall Street is (I hope) discovering that the Fed can't wave a magic wand to make problems disappear.

As you know, the stock market has been in chaos for the past month. Four times it had dramatic, even historic declines — 7%, 10%, 13%, and just yesterday over 6%. But it also had a day of gaining 9% after Trump declared a national emergency, 5% on a spike after the first time the Federal Reserve indicated it would act, and a sharp spike the first time Congress announced legislation.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid.

Here is my take on Wall Street. Investors read about the coming recession and sell. The market collapses. Then they read about the Fed or the White House or Congress taking action. The market shoots up. Then they read more bad news, and the next day there’s another collapse. This cycle of ups and downs has repeated over and over.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid. It has a short memory and low long-term vision. Investors really think the federal government can wave a magic wand and make any problem disappear. Now Wall Street is learning that is not true, and stocks tumble. In the long term, it seems that the market will be down 25% to 40% from its peak in February 2020.

Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity.

As the virus crisis unfolds, there will be much antilibertarian sentiment, to the effect that we need a social safety net, socialized medicine, etc. Instead of replying by talking about what capitalism can do, let's talk about what government cannot do. It can't find a cure by magic. And it can't create money by magic. It cannot eliminate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. It has no magical powers. This is not a crisis that government will solve. It is a crisis that we as a human species will overcome.

Now that Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity, if you own stocks, strap on a helmet. You're in for a volatile, rough ride. As are we all, in the months and year to come.




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Sanders, Biden, and the "Ideological Struggle”

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In the March 15 debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the immediate news was that Biden promised to pick a woman as a running mate. I already assumed he would do that. (Amy Klobuchar? Kamala Harris?) Biden also said he would appoint the first black woman to the US Supreme Court (Harris?), though the newsies didn’t focus on that.

To someone more interested in ideas, the memorable line of the evening was from Sanders: “We are winning the ideological struggle.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.”

His statement hit me on several levels. First, the language. Joe Biden would never use a phrase like “ideological struggle.” Old-line Democrats don’t talk that way. Combine that with Sanders’ condemnation-in-advance of “profiteering,” his bewailing of America’s “unjust and unfair economic system,” and, in his closing statement, his call to “rethink America. Create a country where we care about each other rather than a country of greed and corruption.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.” Here in Seattle we have a Trotskyist on the city council. In the council’s debate in 2018 about the employee head tax, when all the other council members talked about helping “the homeless,” our local Marxist talked about helping “the workers.” And that’s how Bernie talks.

At one point, Biden went after Sanders for his history of praising Cuba and the Soviet Union. Sanders’ reply was that he has always been against authoritarianism; he had never praised that, but the things he’d said about medical care in Cuba, for example, were accurate. So is the statement, “Extreme poverty in China today is much less than 40 to 50 year ago.” Should he not say that because China’s government is authoritarian? Biden replied by denouncing China as a dictatorship. He also dismissed the material progress in China as “marginal,” which is not true, but by red-baiting Sanders he had drawn blood. I wished he had done more: Sanders’ fellow-traveling to Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union (his honeymoon!), done years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, were the actions of an admirer. The white-haired “democratic socialist” has never disowned his youthful pinkhood. Back then, he was full of admiration for State Doctors for All; now he wants Medicare for All.

Biden didn’t pursue it.

On the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions.

On the political level Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle,” sounded like an admission that he wasn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. After the voting of the past two weeks, Sanders is toast, as long as Biden stays healthy and passably lucid.

On the literal level, Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle” hit me as true. Biden is against “Medicare for All” because it would cost trillions of dollars, making it too lumpy to jam through Congress. But Biden said, “We don’t disagree on the principle.” Biden assured the viewers of his plan, Obamacare 2.0, “I can get that passed. I can get that done.”

Indeed, on the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions. President Trump had just had a press conference announcing government money to pay much of the cost of the quarantines, and that all COVID-19 testing would be free. Biden promised to outdo Trump: everything would be free. “Nobody will pay for anything to do with the national crisis,” he promised. “We’re going to have a major, major, major bailout package.”

One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.”

Sanders’ reply was that Biden’s money blowout wouldn’t have changed the healthcare system. “We don’t have a system,” Sanders said. He wants a single-payer system. “You have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden retorted. “It doesn’t work there.” But nobody cared about Italy.

Earlier, Trump had come out in his press conference with a bevy of corporate leaders, some of them from retail chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, and others from medical-related companies. All these CEOs had pledged to cooperate in fighting the virus. One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.” Maybe Biden would, though I doubt it.

Biden had been in Democratic leadership in the Senate for decades, casting votes for tactical reasons, often in times when the Democrats played second fiddle to the Republicans. Sanders, a radical backbencher elected as an Independent, challenged Biden to justify some of these votes. In the George W. Bush years, Biden had voted for a bankruptcy bill that forbade the charge-off of student debt. He had repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions. In the Clinton years he had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage, and for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which increased competition from Canada and Mexico. Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq. “Everybody knew that when you voted for that, you were voting Bush and Cheney the authority to go to war,” Sanders said.

Biden had voted in 2008 to bail out the banks because, he said, the alternative was a depression. Sanders had voted no because, he said, the bankers were a bunch of crooks.

Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq.

Sanders said that on one occasion that Biden had talked with the Republicans about cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Biden protested that he had never voted to cut those benefits — he never would! — but he had to admit, under Sanders’ pressure, that he’d talked about it.

Responding to this list of political sins, Biden said that Sanders had voted to forbid the victims of gun violence, or their families, from suing the manufacturers of guns. Sanders let that go by without comment.

And so it went. Both of them were for saving the Earth with wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, and both would ban fracking. Biden repeated his fantastic claim that passenger trains “would take millions of automobiles off the road.” Biden promised to reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Sanders said, “Who cares? It’s not a big deal,” though of course he was for it. The Vermont Sandino promised to hold the oil-industry leaders “criminally accountable” for warming the planet and lying to the people about it.

The “criminally accountable” part was a difference between the two men. Sanders has a hard edge that Biden does not. The person watching the debate with me, who has not followed the campaigns, pointed to Biden and said, “He’s the slick one.” And then to Sanders, “He’s more honest.”

I suppose. And more openly threatening.




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From Cheesy to Classy

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Blumhouse has become one of my favorite production companies. Founded in 2009 by Jason Blum, its original formula was to produce low-budge horror films such as Paranormal Activity and the Purge series, and then release them quickly through the studio system, relying on the public’s lust for cheap thrills to create profits. These films didn’t appeal to me personally, but the formula worked: Paranormal Activity, which cost $15,000 to produce, grossed $93 million worldwide.

Blum has a knack for recognizing directorial talent and then trusting his directors to bring their vision to the screen. Before long he began attracting directors with strong storytelling and filmmaking skills, while managing to stay within the low-budget formula, making seven-figure films that gross nine- and ten-figure profits.

Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles?

One of my students had the opportunity to work with him two summers ago, and her internship project (an homage to Hitchcock) was so good that I invited her to screen it at the annual Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in Las Vegas. Blum has partnered with several top-quality writer-directors, including Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), M. Night Shyamalan (Split, Glass), and Christopher B. Landon, a prolific screenwriter whose Happy Death Day series is as funny as it is scary, using wit and tension instead of gore and horror to produce a hand-grabbing thrill ride that’s perfect for date night.

Another relative newcomer, Damien Chazelle, directed the excellent Oscar-nominated drama Whiplash for Blumhouse. His next stop? Another Oscar favorite, La La Land. And Jordan Peele knocked it out of the park with Get Out, a scary movie that is also a masterpiece of literary and historical allusion. Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles? Yet that’s what happened to Blum with Get Out, Whiplash, and BlacKkKlansman.

So when Blumhouse produces, I pay attention.The Invisible Man is the latest in its stable of high-class scary movies, and it’s a winner. Based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel and containing numerous homages to the 1933 cinematic classic starring Claude Rains, it manages to maintain Blum’s formula of low-budget, high-quality filmmaking: just $7 million to produce, despite all the high-tech special effects, yet it grossed four times that amount in its first weekend alone.

Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom.

The film is classy, atmospheric, and intense. It opens on a sleeping Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) slowly pulling back her silky coverlet to reveal a seemingly disembodied hand resting on her waist. The effect is reminiscent of Jack Woltz pulling back the covers to reveal the horse’s head in The Godfather. The camera dollies back, revealing the man attached to the hand, as Cecilia cautiously and tremblingly detaches it from her waist — inch by inch, and holding her breath. Clearly, someone has made an offer someone else should have refused, and now she is making her escape.

The camera pulls back further to reveal a room with invisible walls (because they are floor-to-ceiling windows). Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom. The deep, sonorous sound of a tuba playing a single note in its lowest register vibrates through the scene and the camera’s point of view creates a predatory sensation as we watch Cecelia fumble with her clothes and then tiptoe frantically out of the house. Both create exquisite tension. We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

Cecilia hides out at the home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), but she is soon convinced that her husband (for that’s who the sleeping man was), Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has managed to make himself invisible and is trying either to kill her or to drive her mad. (Fans of H.G. Wells will recognize the significance of Adrian’s last name.) The fact that she has a prescription for Diazepam causes us to think it might all be in her head. And yet . . . watch the flame that slowly brightens under the skillet where she is cooking breakfast. Is she crazy? Or is she being gaslit?

We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

I don’t want to give too much away, so just trust me — The Invisible Man is a scary movie in the grandest sense of the genre, full of tension, atmosphere, comic relief, and more tension. It’s as much psychological thriller as it is murder mystery, without the gore of last season’s Joker (although there is some blood), and just as engaging.

And trust me about Blumhouse too — Jason Blum has the magic touch for finding great writer-directors and guiding them to become masters of suspense. Yes, he still does the blood-and-gore stuff too, so I don’t watch everything he produces. But I’m very excited about his new Monster Movies series for Universal Studios based on such classics as The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula. If you like to be scared but not petrified, I think you’ll enjoy them too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Invisible Man," directed by Leigh Whannell. Blumhouse, 2020, 124 minutes.



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Were You Ready for Corona?

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The TV is on CNN, everything is coronavirus, and national attention is on my hometown, Seattle. Washington Governor Jay Inslee — he who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on the promise to fight carbon dioxide — is fighting an entity much more immediately dangerous. As I write, Inslee has declared a ban on all public meetings, public or private, of 250 or more, in the county in which I live. I’m a libertarian, but in matters of pandemics, I bow to the inevitability of state power.

The inevitability of it, if not the complete effectiveness. This is clear if you listen to officials on TV talk about the coronavirus. Whenever the holders of power over public health get on TV, they begin a kind of ritual, like baboons picking lice out of each other’s fur. The ritual is the effusive assertion that the official standing next to them (especially if that official controls a lot of money) has been doing a fantastic job. President Trump talked that way at his first press conference, as did Vice President Pence when he came to Olympia, Washington. All these politicians and political-public-health people do it, nearly as over the top as the actors and actresses at the Oscars. Here in the Coronavirus State it doesn’t feel like anyone has done a fantastic job. Everyone is scrambling to catch up with a microscopic bug.

And did you expect better? I didn’t. I never expected even an adequate job from government officials or from the private sector either, at least in the beginning. CNN’s earnest talking heads are rabbiting on about Trump not being ready, the rest of the government not being ready, about test kits being short, surgical masks short, blah, blah, blah. Ground zero for the infection of the United States is a nursing home 15 miles from my house, in the town of Kirkland. (If you shop at Costco, you will be familiar with that name.) The media people say that the employees at the nursing home weren’t ready, that when they found out about the virus they didn’t use the proper protective gear, implying that their ignorance and sloppiness let the sickness spread to dozens of patients.

Well, hell. Of course the nursing home people weren’t ready. Why would they be? Were you ready? And you might say, “Yeah, but I’m not a nursing home. They’re in the health care business.” Nursing homes are in the feeding-old-people and helping-them-in-the-shower business. You can’t expect them to be ready for a microscopic invasion from China. And you think the county health department, or the state, should be ready? In theory, sure. They are supposed to manage this sort of thing, be right on top of it, master it, kill it, and protect us all. But pandemics don’t often happen, and other problems do. Health workers are good at fixing those problems because they deal with them all the time.

Mostly we prepare for what we know. Several years ago, my wife slipped on the front porch and shattered her ankle. After that I put in a handrail. She had mentioned a handrail before, but it wasn’t urgent, and I hadn’t put one in. A few miles from my house a schoolboy was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy street where there was no crosswalk. After that, the city put in a crosswalk. That is how we get crosswalks. It’s unfortunate, but it’s how people are. Recently I put in a grab bar in the bathtub. No one had fallen in that tub, but I thought I had better put one in. I can pat myself on the back for being “proactive” this time, but falling in the bathtub is a common thing for older people. Global pandemics are not. We’ve had a few of them now, and if we start having them every year or so, we will be ready for them.

As I write, Trump has just taken network time to address the nation, banning travel from continental Europe for 30 days. He seems more focused on the problem than he was, and more realistic — and of course, the talking heads on CNN still take him to task for not answering every concern they have. In Seattle the school board has just closed the public schools. And so we lurch forward.




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The Immortal Jane Austen

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The summer I first met Jane Austen I was so enamored of the world she created and the people with whom she populated it that I devoured all six books in rapid succession. I looked up greedily from Northanger Abbey with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!” It was the 20th-century version of binge watching on Netflix.

Well, maybe I was a bit more reserved than that. But you get the picture. I love the genteel world of Jane Austen and her controlled, ironic wit as she unmasks the snobbery, greed, and elitism lurking in the upper class. I wish she had written a dozen more seasons — I mean, novels.

So it was with happy anticipation that I went to a screening of the latest version of Emma, Austen’s tale of woefully misguided matchmaking in rural England.

I looked up greedily with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!”

The film begins with the wedding of Emma’s governess (Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), a wealthy and congenial neighboring landowner. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is so proud of her part in bringing the two lovers together that she names herself the community matchmaker and sets out to manipulate who should marry whom among her circle of friends.

The ensuing plot has all the intricacies and misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emma becomes Pygmalion to Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a girl of uncertain status in this status-conscious village because of her uncertain paternity, and decides to groom her for society. Harriet has previously fallen in love with Mr. Martin (Connor Swendells), a ruggedly handsome local farmer, and Mr. Martin loves Harriet too, but Emma thinks the Reverend Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) would be a better match for a friend in her social circle. Emma convinces Harriet of Mr. Elton’s devotion, but he prefers Emma, who has set her cap for Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who actually loves Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who seems to love Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has also won the fickle young Harriet’s heart . . . Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

Although the story was written in 1815, its plot and characters have continued to ring true for two hundred years, and not just in high school social groups à la Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time. It reminds me of those who keep extolling the virtues of socialism, even though it has never worked before. Indeed, the successful match between Emma’s governess and Mr. Weston would most likely have happened without Emma’s influence; they simply indulge her insistence on taking the glory.

Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

The cast, though relatively unknown, is well chosen. Anya Taylor-Joy could be Emma Stone’s younger sister, with her ridiculously wide eyes, imperfect teeth, and smattering of freckles across the bridge of her pert, upturned nose. Taylor-Joy plays the part with the same coy wickedness Stone brings to so many of her roles. She’s as cute as a cupcake. Mia Goth is joyfully giddy and unreserved as Harriet Smith, the young girl so astonished to have been chosen as the most popular girl’s pet project that she subverts her own happiness. Miranda Hart is exceptional as the tall, gangly, plain-faced Miss Bates, who has lost her financial standing but not her name when a cousin inherits her father’s estate (a foil, perhaps, of the Bennet women in Pride and Prejudice). Miss Bates is like a St. Bernard puppy in her zeal to be agreeable and liked. She fawns on Emma, drops names that she thinks will impress the young aristocrat, and talks incessantly as a way of covering up her sense of inadequacy. Hart manages to claim our sympathy, even as we understand why Emma wants to avoid her. And Bill Nighy is delightful in his small role as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s hypochondriac father. Woodhouse never seems to know where he is or why he is there, except that wherever it is, he is sure to be in a draft.

My biggest criticism of this film is that Emma’s introduction to Frank Churchill is delayed too long and their chemistry when they do meet is lukewarm, while the hostile friction between Emma and Mr. Knightley feels too playful, telegraphing the happy resolution so much that it spoils the surprise. Perhaps Austen’s heroine is too busy with her matchmaking to brood about her own love interest, but it’s a directorial oversight that weakens an otherwise delicious scoop of sugary fluff.

Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time.

The set design and costumes work in tandem to produce scenes that are delicate and lovely. In one particularly memorable scene, Emma is wearing a purple dress with gold trim; Knightley is dressed in gold jacket with purple piping; and they are standing in a mauve room with eggplant wainscoting and gold flowers on the mantel. As I describe it here, this seems cloyingly like a wedding party, but the actual effect is subtle, elegant, and tranquil.

Austen had a keen eye and an ironic pen. Her stories may have predictable destinations, but when they are presented well, the journey makes them worth the trip. Her characters always seem to remind us of someone we know, and the romantic resolutions, expected by us but unexpected by the characters, often bring a cathartic tear. The social injustices, built on artificially imposed status and expectations, feel familiar as well, and her skillfully genteel exposure of those customs is empowering. This Emma does not rise to the perfection of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility — no one can top Thompson’s tearful gasp of pure joy at the end of that marvelous movie! — but Austen fans will not be disappointed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Emma," directed by Autumn de Wilde. Working Title Films, 2020, 124 minutes.



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Sleepy Joe Awakens

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First thoughts on Super Tuesday:

By moving toward Joe Biden, Democrats are responding to messages in the media. We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket (or maybe even a Sanders-Gabbard ticket; imagine that!) and posing tough questions. And for good reason. Bernie had it coming. The media like a horse race, and tend to handicap frontrunners. And they pile on candidates who wander outside the lane markers of the politically acceptable.

In this case, good. The not so good part is that Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. may become the nominee, and possibly even the next president of the United States. Biden has better table manners than Donald Trump. Biden has experience by the tubful. As he keeps reminding audiences, he’s Been There, Done That. In 2008 Obama, who was only two years out of the Illinois legislature, chose Biden for vice president because Biden had been in the Senate since the administration of Richard Nixon.

We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket.

Libertarians might ask themselves: which is worse, a President Biden who wheels and deals and Gets Things Done (especially for his boy, Hunter!) — or a President Sanders who puffs up his cheeks, hectors and damns, and demands utopia? You could argue that an effective Biden would be worse than an ineffective Sanders. Two Democrats I know — Biden supporters now, I suppose — have told me that even I should vote for Sanders, if it’s between him and Trump. Their argument was that Sanders could never get his utopian programs through Congress, and is therefore not a serious threat to the Republic, but that Trump is.

I find this argument unconvincing. Trump is boorish and domineering, he likes to bully Congress and the Federal Reserve, and he has some policies I don’t like. But Trump has not dropped the atomic bomb, he has not gotten the country into a major war, he has not attempted to stack the Supreme Court, and he has not ordered an entire minority group into concentration camps. I can think of other presidents who did those things. The Republic survived them, sort of. I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump — at least better than it could survive four or even eight years, God forbid, of President Bernie Sanders.

I think of the men Trump has appointed to the Supreme Court — and I think: who would Bernie Sanders appoint?

I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump.

The reason for not preferring Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden is the long-term consequences to the Democratic Party of nominating a socialist. It mattered in 1964 when the Republican Party nominated an anti-New Deal conservative, Barry Goldwater. He got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country. Nominating a socialist would change the ideology of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the country, in the other direction. It would change which proposals were acceptable in the Democratic Party, and which ones were not. To a disturbing extent the Vermont Sandino has already done this. Letting him have any more success cannot be good. That being so, it would be even worse if Sanders won the nomination and beat Donald Trump. Then we would have a new two-party system: the Socialists and the Nationalists. (And yes, I know, some libertarians will argue that that’s what we have now, but all I can say is, just you wait.)

No; it is better that Sanders be defeated, even by Joe Biden, warts (as Liberty Editor Stephen Cox has highlighted) and all.

Goldwater got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country.

I was going to add, “or by Mike Bloomberg,” but he is finished. Bloomberg has proven once again that it takes more than money to win elections. Votes are what wins elections, and there are never enough votes for sale for a rich man to corner the market and become president. That Mike Bloomberg spent upwards of $500 million is a measure of his ambition, and his foolishness. It was even more so for Tom Steyer, a man I’d never heard of until last summer. Hey, guys! You made bad investments! You earned it in the market and spent it on political campaigns. You should have bought yachts!

The Democratic Party is not going to give its prized spot to a self-funded practitioner of capitalism.

The Republicans are different that way, some. They nominated Wendell Willkie in 1940 and he had been a businessman, sort of; and in 2016 they nominated Donald Trump, who was a businessman, sort of. Really Donald Trump was a showman, a media guy. A much better politician than a developer of high-rise buildings. Trump knew how to wow a crowd, how to use the electronic media, how to intimidate his opponents with crude one-liners. He won because he’s a fabulous bullshitter who delighted in violating the proprieties of the Politically Correct. In 2016 Hillary Clinton outspent him by almost 2 to 1 — and all good Democrats keep saying, we’ve got to get money out of politics . . .

Money helps, to be sure. All by itself, it’s useless. Votes are what counts. Sanders has them, and now Biden has them. Let’s see if one will knock the other out before the convention, and if the winner can unify the Democratic Party. It won’t be easy.




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