Woody Allen: He’s Still Good

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When Cate Blanchett walks up to the podium to accept her Best Actress accolades next spring for her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine (and she most certainly will be winning them all, from Golden Globe to Oscar), she will be sharing the award with the ghost of a white Chanel jacket tastefully trimmed in black. That jacket says more about her character, Jasmine Francis, than any piece of costume since Superman's cape. It is Jasmine’s connection with the world she once inhabited, and she wears the expensive jacket casually, as you or I might toss a windbreaker over our shoulders.

Jasmine Francis is a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; she has already gone over the edge, and is desperately trying to hang on. She not only lives in the past, she talks to people in her past, rehashing old conversations right out loud, while standing on the sidewalk or sitting at a party. We see this as flashbacks triggered by key words or images that remind her of her old life. Through this process we see the juxtaposition of Jasmine’s old life as a glamorous socialite and wife of a multibillionaire, and her new life as the poverty-stricken widow forced to live with her sister, a spunky San Francisco grocery clerk.

The story is a thinly veiled roman à clef that imagines the post-scandal life of Bernie Madoff's wife, Ruth. Madoff, of course, was the investment banker who swindled $65 billion from friends, relatives, and charitable organizations in the largest financial fraud in history. After the Ponzi scheme came to light, Ruth Madoff complained that she couldn't go anywhere without being vilified. Shunned by her former friends, she couldn't go to her gym, her favorite restaurants, or even shopping because everyone stared at her and made disparaging remarks. Well duh! It's one thing for a legitimate money manager to misjudge the markets and suffer losses once in a while. But Madoff never even tried to be a wise money manager for his clients. He just kept raking in the dough and spending it on yachts and homes and cars, while sending out phony statements to keep his clients happy. How could anyone feel anything but contempt for such shysters?

Like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine goes to live with a sister. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives in a tiny, frowsy San Francisco apartment with her two young sons. Ginger's marriage has also collapsed, partly because Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had convinced her and her husband to invest their $200,000 lottery prize in his "real estate fund" instead of supporting their goal to start a business of their own. Of course, there was no investment fund; Hal had been funneling everyone's money into his own personal accounts. The big question is: how much did Jasmine know? An even bigger question: how can a person deliberately defraud a family member or friend? Simply shocking.

Jasmine is tasteful and smart and elegant, but she has absolutely no idea how to exist in the real world. She has no income and virtually no money, yet she gives her taxi driver a $100 tip and flies across country first class because she cannot imagine any other way to act. (When Ginger asks, "How did you pay for a first class ticket?" Jasmine responds with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I don't know. I just did.")

Popping Xanax like breath mints and washing it down with Stoli vodka, Jasmine lives in a daze of denial. She knows she has to reinvent and redefine herself, but she can't let go of the past that was so comfortable, nor can she come to terms with how it all happened. Meanwhile Ginger and her friends try in vain to welcome Jasmine into their world of pizza, beer, and cheap dates. The disconnection provides for many comic moments, but the undercurrent of tragedy is always present.

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood. He has been making films for nearly half a century, but (in my opinion) he has done his best work in the past decade, at an age when other people are retired and chasing golf balls. Last year's Midnight in Paris, about a frustrated writer who mysteriously finds himself hobnobbing with the likes of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in 1920s Paris, was brilliant. So is Blue Jasmine. It is one of Allen's finest films. The story is at once contemporary and timeless and true. Cate Blanchett gives an utterly fearless and totally vulnerable performance as Jasmine, and the rest of the cast rise to her level of abandon, forgetting themselves in the characters. And kudos to Suzy Benzinger as costume designer . . . I hope that Chanel jacket shows up at the Oscars.


Editor's Note: Review of "Blue Jasmine," written and directed by Woody Allen. Perdido Productions, 2013, 98 minutes.



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Main St. vs. Wall St.

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The defeat of Romney and the victory of Obama in a disastrous economy which should have crushed the incumbent shows that most people still associate themselves with "Main Street" and view "Wall Street" as the enemy. Only an ideological movement to shift this perception can save the GOP — and such a shift could also help to empower the Libertarian Party.

So let me debunk the myth right now. A look at the Forbes annual list of the richest American and international people shows that many billionaires are not "old money." Many of them are "new money": either self-made rich or the immediate heirs (wives, children, grandchildren) of the self-made rich. Also, many billionaires are women or members of non-white ethnic groups — e.g. the Mexican billionaire Carlos Helu and the women billionaires such as Steve Jobs' widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the self-made billionaire Sara Blakely. Thus it is clear that the rich are not an "aristocracy" ruling over the poor and middle class, as leftists and Marxists assert. The rich are merely those people whose merit — hard work, intelligence, and good choices — earned them vast fortunes.

Let me also explain that trickle-down economics is not voodoo; in other words, why the rich being rich helps the poor and middle class. It helps because the rich do not spend all their money on yachts and mansions and caviar (although even their expenditures on luxury create jobs for other people). They need to make their wealth keep pace with inflation, which forces them to invest most of their money. Who do we want to make business decisions about investing in small businesses and entrepreneurs, to decide who receives society's investment capital: people who know finance and economics and take personal responsibility for their decisions, or government officials lost in a mess of bureaucracy and red tape, who experience no personal accountability from gains, losses, and the profit motive?

Capitalism is merely a system in which capital is invested by private people, as opposed to the state. "Wall Street," that much-maligned entity, is the process followed by rich people — and the financial managers who invest money for them — as they make decisions that fund the talented and hard-working middle class. Small businesses are carefully chosen by Wall Street’s investors because they have the capacity to succeed and expand, thus creating more jobs for the poor.

Wall Street is Main Street's best friend, even though most people don't see the complicated economic relationships that form the substructure of a trip to buy a loaf of bread at the local grocery store. Someone made a decision about which grocery stores to invest in, and which bakers to invest in, and the success of those decisions helps determine whether you pay $1.50 for bread, as we can today, or $15.00, as we might in the socialist nightmare of tomorrow. The socialist-leftist-modern liberal dogmas that the rich are a few crusty old white men locked away in the towers of distant mansions, counting gold coins like Scrooge, and that the corporations have enslaved us and the only practical thing is for “working people” to rebel, is totally contrary to the way the world works.

Shatter the leftist myth, and the people won't view another Republican nominee with envy, hatred, and malice, as they viewed the GOP candidate in 2012. It is too late to save the Romney campaign, but the Rand Paul 2016 campaign could benefit from the argument presented above.




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Persuasive Definitions

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Charles L. Stevenson coined the term "persuasive definitions" (Ethics and Language, 1944). It means: to apply words with favorable or unfavorable connotations to things or actions in such a way as to substitute for actual argument. Examples abound in political discourse nowadays.

I'll focus on just one: "invest." Politicians repeatedly tell us Americans to "invest" in our children, education, job retraining, medical and other research, defense, infrastructure, a healthy environment, clean energy, energy independence, transportation, progress, the future — whatever. Here "invest in" means "have the government spend more money on." More fully, it means "have the government spend more money on such things — money raised by taxes and by increasing the national debt."

What further examples can readers contribute?




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Populist Fizzle

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The Obama campaign and the DNC appear increasingly desperate in their attempts to find some attack on Romney that resonates with the American people. They’re desperate, of course, because the economy continues to drift in the doldrums, and the election looms.

The latest is a populist ploy. Key Democratic politicians started attacking Romney for having invested in foreign companies and having assets in Swiss and other offshore accounts. This was immediately trumpeted by the mainstream media. How dare Romney invest abroad! He’s the pioneer of offshoring!

Now, it is by no means illegal — yet — to put some of your portfolio into foreign assets, and it is in all the “Investing 101” books that you ought to do so. You need to diversify your assets to minimize risks, and this may include diversifying outside your home country. Putting money in a Swiss account, for example, is a good hedge against inflation, given the historic stability of the Swiss monetary system. But the Dems are banking on the fact that the average person doesn’t understand all this — and that is a very good bet.

Alas, however, the attack fizzled when it was discovered that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the DNC, had herself invested abroad, repeatedly. She invested in the Davis Financial Fund, with holdings on the State Bank of India, as well as a Swiss private banking group. She also invested in the Fidelity Advisor Overseas Fund, which has holdings in HSBC (a British bank), Novo Nordisk (a Danish drug company),VW, Rakuten (a Japanese shipping firm) and so on.

It also turns out that another person who has invested abroad is the ever-offensive Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Venus), “head” (though not the brains) of the House Democrats. She earned millions from her investment in Matthews International Capital Management, which focuses primarily on Asian equities.

Obama, like his spiritual mentor Nixon, is much given to what psychologists call “projection” — calling others what you yourself are. Obama once accused McCain’s campaign of “throwing stuff up against the refrigerator to see what sticks.” Yes, President Obama, and you don't have an infamous "enemies list."

But it looks like this little piece of magnetized crap isn’t sticking. Try again, guys.




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Social Security

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My father’s siblings were an eccentric bunch. Born and bred in Brooklyn, they had a very peculiar perspective on the world. None of them ever learned to drive or talked on the phone. They seldom watched TV but lived by the clock, obsessively timing their every move down to the minute — meals, drinks, constitutionals, shopping, reading, waking and sleeping. They minutely measured every quantity that affected them — the volume of their hamburgers (a 50-cent piece), the number of cans of creamed corn in the pantry (4), the size of the jigger of gin in their drinks (1 oz.), the number of daily drinks (3 — plus a Ballantine’s Ale at lunch and a 6 oz. glass of Cribari Red with dinner), the length of their walks (10 blocks), etc.

Ken, the oldest, for some unknown reason, wasn’t fond of black people. But after his wife of 35 years passed away, he married a Japanese mail order bride and adopted two Korean orphans. The gambit forever severed his relationship with his first set of offspring.

Ruth, the only sister, moved in with the other three bachelor brothers — Wallace, Arthur, and Stanley — when her marriage fell apart. Wallace, a chain-smoking aesthete, wrote volumes of poetry and literary criticism, yet never held a job — an attitude vaguely reflected in his politics: he was a progressive social democrat whose ideal society, he quietly enthused, was realized under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. He kept a secret stash of mild pornography in his closet.

Arthur, the youngest, lived under a tiny cloud of shame no one ever alluded to. A Teamster stevedore, he’d once had one drink too many and passed out on a park bench on his way home. Other than tending the siblings’ elaborate truck garden, he never worked again. On walks to the grocery store he’d stop to turn over upside-down beetles.

Stanley, a diminutive stockbroker with coke-bottle glasses, supported the household. He and Wallace had served their country during WWII in noncombatant roles. Stanley had once been engaged, but when his fiancée broke off the engagement without an explanation, he was heartbroken and disillusioned, and always remained that way. Upon retirement, and after Ruth’s death, the remaining brothers moved to a small town in eastern Colorado, where they lived very frugally except for the weekly visit of a cleaning gal.

Stanley and I kept up a weekly correspondence, mostly a running commentary on politics and current events. One day I received a letter informing me that the cleaning lady had altered a $100 payment check to read $1,000, cashed it, and disappeared. Stanley, who budgeted their affairs down to the penny, said that the theft — along with the rampant inflation of the 1970s — had reduced their finances to below a sustainable level. Could I help them out with a monthly stipend?

It must have been a tough letter to write.

I did — and enlisted my brother and sisters in the project. When my mother found out, she complained that the uncles refused to collect their Social Security checks. It was a matter of principle to them: even though they had paid into the system, they perceived it as welfare — not something they wanted to participate in (except for Wallace, I presume, who may not have paid anything into the system). Despite all that, I never questioned their decision, and continued to send a monthly check.

When Arthur passed away, Stanley turned down my offer to visit and help out. It would, he said — in the only phone conversation I ever had with him — “disrupt their routine too much.” When Wallace died, Stanley again begged off. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Last month, in anticipation of turning 62 before the year’s end, I visited my local Social Security office to help determine whether it was better to collect early benefits or wait until I turned 65. Unlike my uncles, I have no qualms about collecting from a system that I’m forced to pay into. I passed a security check, took a number, and patiently waited my turn. When it came, I got a totally unexpected surprise, untempered by any introductory foreplay: I was told that unless I paid another 20 quarters worth of taxes into the system, I would not qualify for any Social Security benefits.

Now, I’ve worked all my life (and continue to do so), and have always paid all my taxes assiduously (though not all of my income was subject to Social Security taxes). I've paid nearly $17,000 into the “compact between generations” (as the Social Security Administration phrases it). I figured my “investment” would be worth at least $80 a month. In spite of knowing that government programs never live up to their promise, I’d never considered that I would be outside the receiving end of Social Security benefits.

What might I have done with those $17,000 I’d paid in over the years? Or with the thousands in stipends I sent my uncles in lieu of their Social Security checks?

Who knows? But I am certain of one thing: I will not throw good money after bad.




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Making Sauerkraut

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Last spring, I took advantage of low cabbage prices and the still cool temperatures in the cellar to make my biannual batch of sauerkraut. I spent a pleasant hour turning ten dollars in raw materials into 50 dollars worth of kraut. Making the kraut requires hand mixing of salt, cabbage, onions, etc., a process that always makes me think of John Locke and property.

Locke’s Second Treatise talks about the individual taking raw, worthless land (as in America) and converting it into property if “he had mixed his labor with it and joined it to something of his own and thereby made it his property.” Locke undoubtedly knew that the word “property” comes from the Latin proprius and means “one’s own” or part of the very person himself. Locke (and Ayn Rand) felt that property was that which the individual needed to earn a living and avoid being a slave.

In Locke’s time, raw forest and prairie abounded and was worthless. Productive farmland was needed to make a living by most people — hence his emphasis on the effect of work on raw land. Nowadays, farmland in much of the U.S. is reverting to forest, but there has emerged plenty of raw material open to anyone for exploitation — an innovative business idea, and possibly a vague theoretical concept that could be turned into a brilliant invention or, as in my case, cheap cabbage to make sauerkraut. No matter what the raw material, adding labor makes it become the property, a part of the very substance, of whoever found and developed the unexploited potential.

Property in this Lockean sense seems to be restricted to things that an individual develops, evolves, or uses and are part of how he makes a living, what he thinks, or how he fits in with others. The property owner, personally involved in the production and enjoyment of his property, becomes so closely identified with the object that it becomes almost indistinguishable from himself. It’s only a small leap to see that the lived life of the individual also develops from raw potential.

I’ll illustrate this framework with my personal circumstances. My education and training, work history, experience, and business contacts are my formal means of making a living. My home, automobile, the books and computers that I use to entertain myself are certainly my property. My thoughts and dreams, the videos that I make, my conversations, the articles that I write, my family, friends, and my civic life (serving on several voluntary boards, etc.) — in short, the stuff that constitutes my daily lived experience, was either conjured out of nothing by focused work or grew out during a long quiet life. All this must be reckoned among my properties. I consider the customs, habits and hopes that can be construed as features of a moral life as part of my being and so my property as well.

But there is the second sense of “property” that is more troubling for me. As a result of working hard and living frugally I’ve accumulated unexpended work as savings and pensions that are invested in various financial instruments. I’d like to reflect on how this form of property, which I’ll call “investments,” differs from the property of my day-to-day lived life.

Let’s say that I buy 100 shares of some large corporation. Was my involvement anything more than doing some research on that stock and putting it into my online stock account? Is this investment really embedded in my life? The corporation was started many years ago by individual owners who made it their property and embedded in their lives. Ownership was eventually divided among an ever enlarging circle of partners, share holders, and lenders. It’s now divided in a million ways, but very few of the present owners either understand or have the information necessary to make good business decisions. Most are not critically dependent on this one stock and see it only as an accounting entry in a properly diversified portfolio.

This company has in fact become a public-private partnership run by an incestuous gang of managers and directors, all cooperating with government officials and forming a kind of nomenklatura. It typically plays fast and loose with ethical business practices, sponsors ad hoc laws to restrict competition, obfuscates losses, makes money with which it handsomely rewards the in-group, buys politicians, and keeps the stockholders placid.

Such companies can be vindicated to some extent. They cause big things to happen; large projects get built, and markets remain tranquil. The accusation of greed (one of the seven deadly sins) makes no sense when directed at these impersonal entities. Corporations are at once property and also hold property, and those property rights must be respected. Analytically, corporations are fungible, that is, can be bought and sold on a whim (try to sell my professional status on the stock market). It is individuals, not corporations, that hold the spoon; these companies are surprisingly vulnerable to changes in public tastes.

From my perspective, investments have evolved naturally in a normal free-market economy as the main insurance we have against age and illness. Stocks and bonds (and a Social Security check, if I can cut a chunk out of the pig’s ass as it waddles past) are necessary for a time when I can no longer earn a living by using my Lockean property. My CPA points out that wealth is important, not because it allows the individual to do nothing, but because it allows the individual to make better decisions. Investments do affect the owner in good ways.

But it irks me that I have no choice but to invest in such Juggernauts (an apt metaphor for ponderous objects of worship that sometimes crushed their devotees). I’m alienated from these investments; their methods and effects do not reflect my moral and intellectual values. They often operate against the commonweal and employ arbitrary political power that is foreign to my nature. They are impersonal and therefore amoral. Their investments are often mysterious, chaotic, and irrational. They are unprincipled, untethered from moral codes.

How can I deal with my disquiet?

I could follow news events regarding my holdings and sell my stock when I see something that particularly irks me. Boycotts can be employed when corporations cross some ill-defined moral line. I can vote or run against politicians who take money or do favors for corporations. Corporations won’t hire anarchists like me, so working on the inside is not an option.

In short, I can’t do very much. It's not the least bit like making sauerkraut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

          




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