Cut Taxes, Save the Poor

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Usually the debate between tax-and-spend liberals and cut-taxes conservatives is a fight about raising taxes on the rich or lowering taxes for the rich. Instead of wading into those troubled waters, I would like to propose a policy of cutting taxes on the poor and the lower middle class. As a byproduct, the system would fund charity to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and provide medical treatment for the poor and mentally ill.

State and local sales and property taxes hit the poor hard, while the tax laws ensure that only the prosperous benefit (though not very much) from donating to charity. I would change this, as follows:

1. Congress should pass a law providing a federal income tax credit equal to the amount of sales taxes and property taxes paid at the state and local level. Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully. The rich can afford to pay property taxes, but they bleed other homeowners dry, meanwhile driving up rents and home prices. States and localities are involved in providing essential public services, but the federal government can cut taxes on the poor by defunding nonessential federal programs. For people too poor to pay income taxes, a cash tax refund should be issued in the approximate amount of their sales and property taxes. This would effectively repeal those taxes. Technology exists to track how much sales tax a poor or middle-class person has paid. To assuage the fears of privacy advocates, tracking sales taxes could be an opt-in feature chosen by people who want the rebate for it. Or people could keep their own records of what sales tax they paid and report it to the IRS.

Sales taxes hurt the poor: the rich don't notice them, but the poor and the middle class feel them painfully.

2. Add the charitable deduction on top of the standard deduction, thus drawing in people who don’t itemize deductions and encouraging everyone to give more to charity and less to taxes.

3. Limit eligible charitable deductions to charities that feed the hungry, house the homeless, or provide medical treatment to the poor or the mentally ill. This will funnel charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy, lessening the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need. Within the realm of such vital services, remove all red tape to make it easy for any charity to gain IRS status for the right kind of donations.

4. By statute, eliminate liability for a charitable donor's honest errors in estimating the cash value of goods and services he has donated. Create a safe harbor so that if any reasonable person could have purchased the donated goods or services for $X amount, then the IRS may not challenge or litigate when the donor claims a tax deduction of $X. This will set the middle and lower middle classes free from the fear of using charitable contributions to avoid paying taxes.

Funneling charitable dollars to the vulnerable and needy would lessen the ability of liberal politicians to exploit government power in the name of need.

5. Institute a charity multiplier of 2x or 3x. For example, if someone donates $300 to a charity, he avoid paying $900 of federal income taxes. This will encourage people to donate to vital charities while achieving a massive de facto tax cut.

This policy package, if passed in its entirety, would help the poor by cutting taxes on both rich and poor. Congress should do this, and we libertarians should advocate it.




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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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Casualties of the Drug War

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White Boy Rick is a rough and complex biopic based on the story of Richard Wershe, Jr., the youngest (at 14) undercover drug informant ever to be recruited by the feds to help them go after the kingpins in the drug trade. At times touching, as when Rick (Richie Merritt) scavenges a stuffed animal from a neighbor’s trash to take home for his sister Dawn (Bel Powley), and at times enraging, the film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

The story is set in mid-’80s Detroit, against a backdrop of empty factories, rat-infested playgrounds, and worn-out homes in worn-out neighborhoods. Richard Wershe Senior (Matthew McConaughey) is a hustler with a gun dealer’s license, and the film opens in the carnival-like atmosphere of families enjoying a gun show, popcorn and all. (I remember attending “hard money” investment conferences in the ’70s and early ’80s where guns were legally sold alongside exhibit booths offering survival gold and freeze-dried foods. How times have changed!)

The film shows the dark underside of the war on drugs in all its ugly glory: corrupt cops, heartless investigators, violent turf wars, strung-out druggies, and the poverty and despair that often lead people into the trade.

Wershe Sr. has a dream: VCRs have recently arrived on the scene, and he wants to open a video store. “All we need is a stake!” he tells Rick. That video store is his rabbit farm (Of Mice and Men), the dream that sustains him through all the disappointments of his life: a jobless economy, a daughter strung out on crack, a son who has dropped out of school, and a source of income that’s sketchy at best. He loves his family, but he can’t provide a good life for them. He has a license to sell registered guns at a meager profit, but the real money is in the “upsell” — the illegal homemade silencers he offers along with them. “The gun is the burger — but these are the fries,” he tells Rick, explaining how fast food servers are trained to make you think you want something you don’t really need. “Now go out and sell you some fries.”

Ironically, FBI agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) and Detective Jackson (Brian Tyree Henry) ply Rick with a burger and fries as they enlist his services as an undercover narc, threatening to arrest his father for illegal firearms sales if the boy doesn’t comply. This scene was particularly poignant to me, because several of my students at Sing Sing have told me that McDonald’s is the drug of choice for recruiting young drug runners in the streets. “You got no one at home watching out for you, and then some big kid on the block buys you McDonald’s and wants to be your friend. He gives you a cheeseburger and you hold his gun for him. And you end up in here.” Oh, so subtly, with a burger and fries, the film equates the Feds, the dealers, and Rick’s father. The kid never had a chance.

It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight.

The scenes that follow show Rick immersing himself in the drug culture, with its fast money, easy women, and useless luxuries. These scenes also reminded me of stories my Sing Sing students have told me. “You spent it all as soon as you got it, because you knew this wasn’t going to last. We all knew we’d end up in here. So enjoy it while you can. I had a Mercedes, a big apartment, big parties, I was livin’ the life. Now I’m here.” Rick says something similar to Dawn: “It was good when we were kids. For a while.”

Hopelessness in impoverished neighborhoods often leads people to seek instant gratification and engage in risky behaviors. It makes no sense to save for the future when there isn’t a future in sight. There aren’t any rabbits, and there isn’t any video store. It’s all a pipe dream, mostly found at the bottom of a crack pipe. So grab a few laughs and some ass while you can. There isn’t going to be any more where you’re going.

The feds are no better than the drug lords, and probably worse, because they claim to be the good guys. Driven by moral relativism, they see no problem with getting kids high, sending them into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful. Dawn gets strung out on coke provided by her boyfriend, but Rick gets strung out on money provided by the coke the feds give him for his undercover stake. When the feds drop him and that money source dries up, Rick is already hooked. “We gotta do something!” he says to his father in desperation. “We gotta make some money!”

This is a world Liberty readers seldom see and few legislators, journalists, and do-gooders of any sort understand. In one bitterly ironic scene of the movie, the film Footloose is playing on a television moments before automatic weapons riddle the room with bullets. (Footloose, you may recall, is set in a white middle-class community where the biggest threats to happiness are curfew violations, joyriding, and uncontrolled dancing.) “Get out of Yonkers!” is the advice I fairly scream at the families I know there, where poverty, drug use, crime, and hopelessness form a dragnet on their children. But they can’t let go of the safety net — their Section 8 housing — and they stay.

The feds see no problem with sending kids into dangerous situations in order to catch drug dealers, and then leaving them to deal with their addictions — and their incarcerations — when they’re no longer useful.

Rick Wershe may have been the youngest teen to be recruited as an undercover informant to avoid arrest, but he certainly isn’t the only one. According to an article by Tony Newman of Drug Policy Alliance, it has become all too common to bust people for minor possession and then threaten them with decades in prison unless they provide evidence on someone else -– and for those frightened, untrained informants to end up dead. Rick didn’t end up dead, but he might as well have, when his handlers stood idly by as he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole — for selling cocaine. It was the longest sentence for a nonviolent crime ever imposed, until Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for running the Silk Road website.

I watched the tears quietly trickle down 17-year-old Rick’s cheeks in the closing scenes of the film as he spoke through prison glass to his equally distraught father, and the tears quietly streamed down my cheeks too. I know too many of these young men — now middle-aged — who have beenincarcerated since they were teens because they were enticed into a drug trade that is only lucrative and deadly because it is illegal. There are no good guys in the war on drugs. There is only bad law. And bad schools. And bad neighborhoods without hope.

When Footloose ends, the local authorities acknowledge that they only made things worse when they banned dancing. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the same thing about banning drugs.


Editor's Note: Review of "White Boy Rick," directed by Yann Demange. Columbia Pictures, 2018, 111 minutes.



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The Civic Sacred Cow

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Recently someone left a pile of human shit on the back steps of my building. A neighbor was assaulted by a homeless person in the alley. A clerk at the 7-Eleven tried to get a beggar off the property and was slammed against the wall and threatened; the police said, “Well, you weren’t hurt, were you?” The secretary of a neighborhood church told me she was getting afraid to go to work, since there was always at least one drugged-out man camping on the steps. The front yard of another church was filled with homeless every day and night, often blocking the sidewalks. Fires repeatedly swept through the city property next to the freeway, site of homeless encampments and cookouts. A friend who plays in a women’s softball league complained that the restroom they formerly used in the city park was always occupied by homeless men. At that point, finally, I resolved to do something. The park is in my city council district, not hers.

There began a series of calls and emails between me and numerous city and police officials, in which I mentioned to everyone on the other end of the conversation that cops patrol the neighborhood but do nothing about its obvious problems. The result, finally, was that the invaders were out of the women’s restroom and the church secretary got some temporary assistance in evicting permanent transients from the property. The other problems have not been touched.

If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.”

My experience can stand for that of thousands of others who have tried to do something about the growing Problem of Homelessness, which in many cities of America is making life miserable for all classes except the rich. The interesting thing to me is that when people call public officials to complain, they are invariably admonished that “homelessness is not a crime.” I was told that too, right off the bat, in every conversation I had.

This seems increasingly peculiar to me. If you call to report that your neighbor has parked his car in your driveway, blocking your egress, I doubt that the first thing you hear will be a frosty, “Parking is not a crime.” Now let’s try it the other way. If you threaten your neighbor, assault him, shit on his steps, camp in his doorway, and occupy, in your nakedness, the restroom of the opposite sex, what will happen to you? You will be arrested, forthwith.

So what’s the difference? The difference is that you are a lowly taxpayer, bound by every rule that anyone can think of; whereas the people who are making your environment annoying, tough, dangerous, or merely sickening are “homeless” and therefore above the law. In fact, they are some of the largest beneficiaries of the law; every community I know of gives them tax-supported aid in innumerable forms. In San Francisco it is about $37,000 per year, per vagrant.

If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

As a human being, I feel pity for most of these people, because they are crazy, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. True, many could kick their addictions and submit to treatment for their craziness; they could “take their meds.” But they won’t, and for that I also feel sorry for them, though not nearly as sorry as I feel for the people they happen to rob, kill, and infect with disease. My city has a very large and very good Catholic charity that is able and willing to shelter any homeless person who agrees, essentially, not to be disruptive; the charity’s beds are never fully occupied.

I don’t know how to solve this problem; I wish I could solve all of my own problems. As a libertarian, I would defend anyone’s right to wander on whatever streets he chooses, to drink and smoke and shoot up as much as he wants; all I insist is that he not impose himself on others, occupy their property, ruin their businesses, insult their houses of worship, rob them, threaten them, and appropriate for his own use the things that other people, many of them poor people, have paid for. If we lived in a libertarian anarchy, something would still need to be done about this.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that city authorities sympathize with me in this dispute. The fact that their default position is that I’m wrong and the “homeless” are right and fully justified by the “law” can hardly be explained on rational grounds, even if we extend “rationality” to mean “honey up to the voters, or they may toss you out on the street.” To insult the voters with moral lectures or sham economic theories (“if housing weren’t so expensive, people wouldn’t need to live on the streets”) is an act of irrationality that can only be explained by the assumption that some mystical, religious value is at stake.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness.

And so it is. Our officials now believe that they have a higher obligation to the homeless than to everyone else, the kind of obligation that leads some people to sacrifice their self-interest on behalf of God or the Bible. One of the two major political parties now proclaims, by its every word and action, and particularly in parts of the country where “the homeless” abound, that in any conflict between the voters and the homeless (who do not vote), it will side with the homeless.

Of course, this isn’t any of the great religions; it’s the little religion of self-righteousness. But it has the same effect as certain customs of the great religions. I believe that in some parts of India, cows are still permitted to wander at will through the people’s markets, eating what they will from the merchants’ produce, and, of course, shitting where they will. And why? Those cows are sacred.




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What Do You Make of This?

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Years since the war in Afghanistan began: 17

Percentage of Afghanistan currently controlled or contested by the Taliban (most favorable estimate to the US): 44

Years since the war on drugs began: 104

Percentage of Americans 12 years of age or older who use illegal drugs (2016 estimate): 10.6

Years since the war on poverty began: 54

Money so far expended on the war on poverty (2014 estimate): $22 trillion

Percentage of Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 13

Percentage of African Americans living in poverty (2016 estimate): 22

National debt, 1970, as percentage of GDP: 35

National debt, 2017, as percentage of GDP: 104

Years served in the House of Representatives (5 samples):

  • Don Young, (R-AK): 45
  • Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI): 39
  • Steny Hoyer (D-MD, minority whip of the House): 37
  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, minority leader of the House): 31
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA): 27

Years served in the Senate (5 samples):

  • Patrick Leahy (D-VT): 43
  • Orrin Hatch (R-UT): 41
  • Mitch McConnell (Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., R-KY, majority leader of the Senate): 33
  • Diane Feinstein (D-CA): 26
  • Patty Murray (D-WA): 25

Total years of service of politicians just mentioned: 347

Members of Congress proficient in practical mathematics: no known instances




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Seattle Solons Sideline Squatters

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Last month (Liberty, May 10), I reported on the Seattle City Council’s attempt to impose a per-employee tax on large businesses, the proceeds of which were supposed to be used to help the homeless.

The video of the meeting (June 12) at which the Council acted in response to public opposition and repealed the head tax is entertaining. The council chamber is full of people with signs — green ones saying “No Tax on Jobs” and red ones urging a tax on Amazon, the city’s largest private employer. The people holding the green signs are quiet and the people holding the red signs are noisy. When the council members come to a vote, the red-sign people set up a chant to drown them out: “We . . . are . . . ready to fight! Housing . . . is . . . a human right!”

The council members, who had voted unanimously for the head tax a month before, explain their votes (7 to 2 for repeal). First come the progressive Democrats who are voting for repeal. Not one of them admits that the head tax is bad policy. Referring to the success of the business-led petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot, and polls showing that on this issue Seattle’s liberal electorate sides with business, Councilwoman Lisa Herbold says, “This is not a winnable battle. The opposition has unlimited resources.” By repealing the head tax, she says, the progressives are cutting their losses. “There is so much more to lose between today and November,” she says.

“We need more resources,” the councilman says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda, who opposes repeal, talks of the vote as if it were not a defeat. What makes it not a defeat? Because she still believes in the cause. Her belief is what’s important. And also that a month before, the council did vote for the tax. “I’m proud that this council stood up in the face of intimidation and fear,” she says, just before seven of her colleagues vote to reverse their action.

Councilman Mike O’Brien says the city spent $94 million on the homeless last year, and that it is not enough. “We need more resources,” he says, and votes to repeal the tax that would have raised tens of millions.

“We know what the solutions are,” says Councilwoman Lorena Gonzalez, who votes against the solution she is so sure of.

Finally comes our Socialist Alternative councilwoman, Kshama Sawant, speaking to her chanting groupies with the red signs. She calls this a defeat — and just the sort of defeat you get by putting your faith in Democrats. Her Democratic colleagues patting themselves on the back for caring about the homeless have nothing to be proud of. “This is a capitulation and a betrayal,” Sawant says.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building a socialist America.

And not of the homeless, really. The Democrats talk about the homeless. Sawant talks about working people, at one point saying that the vote to repeal the tax is a betrayal of working people, as if the squatters in Seattle’s public parks were waking up every morning, putting on clean clothes, and going to work.

Really Sawant cares about making the rich pay, about bringing them down in status, and about building her movement for a socialist America.

Mostly Sawant was sore at her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept the business community’s challenge of a public vote. “There was a chance of winning,” she says.

A chance, yes. Not a good one.

Yes, Bezos is her enemy. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats.

Sawant berates her colleagues for surrendering to the business community and its supporters, though she characterizes it as a surrender to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Jeff Bezos IS our enemy,” she proclaims.

And I find myself agreeing with her. Not with her condemnation of Bezos or her advocacy of “social housing” and “taxing the rich,” but with her political clarity. Yes, Bezos is her enemy. Damn right. And yes, her colleagues are spineless Democrats. They did betray her cause, and her. It was disgusting to hear them praising themselves even as they backed down, as if they could weasel out with talk. They lost, and because they lost, she lost.

It’s a glorious day.




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Vicars of Christ Say the Darnedest Things

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Pope Francis recently remarked that the US, among other countries, has a
"distorted vision of the world."




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All that Glitters Is Not Green

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Say what you will about urban woes, there is an American City — let’s call it the Emerald City — where everything appears to be swell, all the time. Just think: even among its lowly municipal employees there are 10,600 who make over $100,000 a year. That’s $1.3 billion a year, total.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks. The commissioner must do a good job, because last year she earned a $100,000 bonus, on top of her $300,000 salary.

Emerald City’s Water Management Department employs none but the finest: more than 700 of its people merit and receive over $100,000 a year, each.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks.

To keep the streets all green and shiny, Emerald City pays at least 160 of its Streets and Sanitation employees more than $100,000 a year. And to keep those streets safe, the city fields 5,007 Police Department employees who work so hard, what with overtime and all, that they too make more than $100,000.

Their salaries are especially well merited, considering the extreme and demoralizing difficulty of solving the city’s crimes. In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Only a happy and wealthy populace can afford to employ civil servants at prices like these. The willingness — nay, the eagerness — of Emerald City’s citizens to employ no one but the best is indicated by the fact that during the past five years, the average family’s tax contribution has increased by $1,700. That’s city taxes alone, mind you. But the citizens go farther: as of three years ago, they were willing to go into debt to the tune of $63 billion, an average of $61,000 per household — more than enough to move into a brand-new house almost anywhere on the Yellow Brick Road. And those figures have risen since.

But here’s a curious thing. The median household income of the United States is something like $56,000, but in only 16 of Emerald City’s 50 most populous statistical neighborhoods is the median household income $56,000 or greater. The bottom 16 neighborhoods have incomes of less than $37,000. Isn’t that interesting?

In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Another interesting statistic: In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Emerald City, a number that a police spokesman called “unacceptable.” Yet by mid-August of this year, the figure for 2017 already stood at 463.

And if report be true, Emerald City is not the spotless land of delight that Dorothy Gale reported visiting. Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Yet, according to statistics, not many of the very rich actually live in Emerald City. None of the city’s 50 neighborhoods has a median household income of $100,000. In the wealthiest one, median incomes are in the low 90s, less than the incomes just cited for the 10,600 civil servants. And since the median income of the entire city is only $47,000, it seems likely that a sociologist would analyze the situation as one in which a comparatively small number of city employees ruthlessly exploit the great majority of their employers, giving them practically nothing in return.

The sociologist might then turn to the political scientist and ask, “How long can this go on?” The political scientist might answer, “Who knows? Somehow, the voters of Emerald City have empowered the same political party, the same political customs, the same political regime, for more than three generations, no matter what happened as a result. This looks like a job for a psychologist.”

Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Thus consulted, the psychologist would probably say, “The citizens of Emerald City are like almost everyone else in the United States. They all do things like this. Who am I to judge? Statistically, people in Emerald City are sane and normal.”

I think there’s a chapter in one of the Oz books where this problem comes up. Having discovered what is actually going on in the Emerald City, a crowd rushes to the palace, shouting, “To the Wizard! To the Wizard! The Wizard will explain it!” Sure enough, the door of the palace opens, and out comes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He’s carrying a book, and he says, “Back where I come from, we have people who are called theo . . . theologo . . . theologians! They spend all day thinking about the human soul. And they have nothing more to say about it than they can find in this old book.”

The Wizard opens it and reads:

A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

“So,” said the Wizard, “you can all go home. Get out of here now — go on! Go on home.”




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Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.



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