Cuba, Obama, and Change

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Although Republicans and, no doubt, the Castro brothers perceive President Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20 as American kowtowing, the perception on the Cuban street is entirely different.

To Cubans, the visit is an honor ranking right up there with the Pope’s visit, and one not vouchsafed to the island since President Coolidge’s visit in 1928. El mulato, as he’s informally referred to in the Cuban fashion of conferring nicknames on everyone, and his historic visit, bring the promise of hope and change to the island more concretely than any pronouncement ever made by the Castros.

I know. Three days ago I returned from a 30-day bike journey across the island, from Baracoa in the east to Havana. American flags were everywhere — in cars, taxis, horse- and pedal-drawn taxis, even clothing — even before the visit was announced. Warned by guidebooks and savants to minimize exchanges with uniformed personnel, and never to photograph any, I found the admonition accurate. These were all serious, unfriendly, incorruptible, suspicious, and averse to any sign of curiosity. But once the visit was announced, I decided to test the premises. Passing soldiers, policemen and God-knows-what functionaries, I’d yell, “We’re not enemies anymore!” and I’d add some typical Cuban sassy wordplay non-sequitur as a true native would. I managed to get a few smiles and even some playful responses. Things are changing.

The hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen.

Back in March 2012, in a Liberty article entitled “The Metamorphosis,” I outlined the changes to the Cuban economy legislated by the Castro government (see also “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?”, Liberty, December 2010). The changes attempted to drop one-fifth of the workers from government jobs and make them self-employed — this in a country where everyone is employed by the government at pay scales of $1–2 per day. But the fine print indicated internal ideological conflicts. While dozens of job categories were authorized — from transportation to food, to lodging, to construction, to personal grooming (and many more) — permits, taxes, limits on employees and much red tape don’t make the goal easy to achieve.

Nonetheless, the hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person pursuing his hopes and dreams along miles of city streets and rural roads was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen. Ironically, even the poorest — those whom socialism is touted to help the most — were selling homemade sweets, cucuruchos, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains without permits! One told me he’d be fined $3,000 if caught. To a poor guajiro unable to pay such a fine, jail would await.

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income. One university economics grad student whose psychologist wife still works for the state now runs a B&B in Las Tunas, where I overnighted between Bayamo and Camagüey. Next year he plans on studying Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek. I asked whether that was possible; he said definitely, in advanced academia. His study plan had already been approved.

Three blocks from the capitolio in Havana, along the Prado, I spotted a sandwich board advertising real estate. A university economics professor tended the spot. He had no office other than his board, his clipboard, and the built-in bench on the promenade. Though we’d seen many “For Sale” signs on many buildings, including the humblest of abodes, we saw no real estate offices. I excitedly elbowed my wife Tina, a realtor in Arizona, to engage her interest.

Bad move.

A middleman agent of finance — the epitome of freewheeling capitalism — just didn’t fit into her perception of a socialist economy. Either the man was deluded or he was a scammer (an unlikely scenario: the police are ruthless with physical and financial crimes). I insisted on us engaging the man. Immediately she blurted out, “How can you own property in Cuba when there are no property rights and the state can confiscate your property at any time for any reason?”

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income.

The poor man, without a vestige of the ingeniousness of an American used-car-salesman, took on a pained and thoughtful look. He didn’t know where to start, but he understood that Tina had zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Translating his response was an exercise in empathy. He told us of a building across the street from the capitolio whose residents had just been told by the government to move out: the government needed the space. He didn’t know whether compensation, alternative housing, or even a grace period had been granted. He was the first to admit that Cuba has no property rights and no judicial system to enforce them. Nonetheless, what was he to do? New laws, albeit extremely constricted, allowed for the buying and selling of cars and property. No mortgages are available; only cash transactions. Interest is still illegal. But someone was paying him four times the salary he’d made at the university. He had nothing but hope and an optimistic outlook: “This time the people will not let the changes be reversed.”

I reminded him of the roadside billboards that read, “The changes in progress are for MORE SOCIALISM” — a sure sign, he counterintuitively agreed, along with Obama’s visit, that the changes now have a better chance of sticking than any previous promises. Or as one informant put it, “Castro educated us; now we know what he’s up to.”




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The Big Short Finds Joy

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In 2008 the United States experienced the biggest collapse in the real estate market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While many had been talking about the expanding bubble, no one really thought it would burst. Real estate was the one sure deal, the tangible investment that everyone needed and thus would never disappear. During the upward panic to get into the market before prices skyrocketed even further, buyers were snapping up houses within a matter of days after they were listed, often engaging in bidding wars that drove the sales price higher than the asking price. “What our houses are worth now” was the gleeful topic of every cocktail party in every neighborhood, whether you were interested in selling or not. Using easy credit made easier by the “no-doc” loans that guaranteed virtually everyone a mortgage, people who had no business buying houses got into the market, and people who already owned homes risked their solvency by taking out additional home-equity loans to use for other purposes. After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

Until they go down. In September 2008 the bubble burst, leaving overleveraged homeowners in precarious positions — unable to sell, unable to pay, unable to forestall foreclosure, and underwater with their mortgage-to-equity figures. The Big Short attempts to explain what happened, in a film that is sassy, quirky, glib, and sometimes even right.

After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

In the interest of telling a good tale, the filmmakers simplify it, presenting a small portion of the story as if it were the whole story. For example, they virtually ignore the Community Reinvestment Act, which was designed to make mortgage and investment money available in “underserved” (read: poverty stricken) areas. The Act was a noble goal, but it meant that people would be granted mortgages who really couldn’t afford them, and had no cushion whatsoever to deal with repairs, upkeep, or changes in employment (read: getting fired). These were called “subprime” loans officially, but “Ninja loans” derisively (No Income, No Job, Accept Anything). It also meant that the demand for homes increased dramatically, driving prices and new construction upward in response to this new bloc of buyers. By ignoring this Act, the filmmakers suggest that all of the blame lay in the private sector of investment funds and rating services.

Instead, this film focuses on the creation of mortgage-backed securities, which is an investment vehicle that spreads the risk of foreclosure by bundling many mortgages into a single security and then selling shares of that security to a number of investors. Everyone shares in the risk and the reward. And because of that, local bankers no longer keep the mortgages they grant to individuals in the community; as soon as the signatures are dry, the mortgages are bundled away onto the secondary market. In the interest of brevity and creating a single straw man, the film blames this on the mastermind behind the mortgage-backed security, Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisenzopf), but this is an oversimplification of what went wrong. Many factors were involved, including Federal Reserve policy on the national level and overproduction of building permits on the local level.

Let’s face it: life is not a screenplay. But that’s how this caper is presented. A few savvy investors notice the increase in late mortgage payments and foreclosures beginning around 2004, anticipate the collapse, and figure out a way to profit from it. All these characters are based on real people. One is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who breaks the fourth wall to narrate the film in a cool, hipster tone that draws us into the web. Others include the Silicon Valley-based eccentric Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the moralistic Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and two young founders of a trading fund called Brownfield Capital, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who bring the also eccentric investment trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement and into their deal. Working independently from one another, these traders are convinced they can make a killing by shorting the real estate market (hence the title, The Big Short).

In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss.

W.C. Fields made famous the idea that “you can’t cheat an honest man,” and the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers personify that adage. They laugh conspiratorially behind the backs of these short sellers even as they take their money, so confident are they that real estate is “too big to fail.” Of course, we know that the last laugh will be on them. But the bankers will not go down without a fight. The film demonstrates the dubious shenanigans and downright manipulation they used to try to keep the market afloat and force the investors to close their short positions before they could exercise them.

If all this sounds a tad confusing, not to worry! The filmmakers explain such concepts as short selling, CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), ISDAs (International Swaps and Derivatives), and other potentially dry, technical terminology, using the unlikeliest characters. A glamour girl lounges in a bubble bath, sipping champagne and explaining mortgage-backed securities, while the soap bubbles and the fizz bubbles provide a sleazy metaphor for the market bubble that is brewing. A chef chops up unsellable three-day-old fish to make a marketable stew as he explains the fishy rating system that kept these mortgage-backed securities at AAA status even when their defaults were ballooning. A stripper undulates on her pole as she explains yet another investment concept. Music videos appear unexpectedly to demonstrate the euphoria of various characters. These unexpected moments, coupled with a soundtrack reminiscent at times of an Ocean’s Eleven sting, keeps the film hopping and lively.

But this is not a fun topic, and the short-selling sting was not directed against a Las Vegas gangster who deserved his comeuppance. In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss. And their brilliant scheme would deliver a double wallop to the already precarious investment banks. According to the film, six million lost their homes, and eight million lost their jobs. Rickert puts it into perspective when he reminds Charlie and Jamie, “If we make money, it’s because ordinary people lose homes, jobs, and lives.” Banks held the prices of their securities up as along as they could, hoping for a turnaround, but in the process they simply made things worse. Regulators were in bed with the companies they regulated, creating a false sense of protection that contributed even more to the disaster. The result was almost as devastating to employees of the major investment firms as the day the World Trade Center was attacked. In its scale, the personal devastation was worse.

The Big Short is not the whole story. It might not even be the true story. But it is an important portion of the story, told with an outstanding cast in an entertaining and engaging way. Surprisingly, it does not trash big business, even though it shows collusion, fraud and manipulation at many levels. Mostly it shows individuals putting their own needs first, protecting their own jobs and security and using their influence to manipulate the bond ratings and the markets to their advantage. No one is overtly evil in this film. It tells a very personal story, one that each of us might be drawn into on a smaller scale if we aren’t careful.

Joy, another film about business, opened the same week as The Big Short, focusing not on the big dealers but on the underserved. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and both are populated by an ensemble of AAA actors, including Melissa Rivers, who in Joy does a sharp but poignant turn as her mother, Joan Rivers, in her role as a QVC spokesperson. Both films rely on nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, and dream sequences to make some of their points. This is especially effective in Joy, where disconnected, disorienting scenes demonstrate how seemingly disconnected ideas come together in the imagination to form something new and valuable.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a creative, bright, hardworking young mother of two and valedictorian of her high school class who has been held back from success by the emotional and physical demands of her eccentric family, most of whom live in her house. Her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of her days in bed, watching soap operas; Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe singer, lives in her basement and can’t keep a job; her philandering father Rudy (Robert De Niro) also lives in her basement when he’s between girlfriends; and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who narrates the story, is the only person who believes in her.

Joy didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table.

As a child Joy had big dreams of becoming an inventor, but her parents’ divorce drove her ambitions inside, much as a cicada (a recurring metaphor in the film) spends 17 years in unproductive safety underground. When she cuts her hands badly while sopping up the mess made by a broken wine glass, she figures out how to make a “wringless mop” and decides it’s time to reemerge into the light and dangers above ground to sell her invention to others.

I own this mop. I love it. It keeps my hands clean and dry while it makes my floor clean and sparkly. I also own the Huggable Hangers that the real Joy Mangano invented. They keep my silky shirts and dresses from falling onto the floor in my closet. I’m grateful that she had the spunk and tenacity to overcome all the obstacles she encountered on her way to success, and I’m glad her hundreds of household inventions have made her filthy rich, because her inventions make my life better. But she didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table. And like so many other entrepreneurs, she did that by making other people’s lives better too. This is what I love most about this film.

To do it, she needed capital. She needed to conduct a patent search, apply for a patent, design molds to produce her mop, negotiate with manufacturers to make the mop, and market the mop to mass audiences. Capital is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Joy finally convinces her father’s latest girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in manufacturing and marketing her invention. The rest of the film demonstrates both the elation and the devastation of entrepreneurship. Through it all, Joy never gives up — not on her invention, not on her family, and not on herself. Harry Browne fans will appreciate Joy’s advice to her young daughter: "Don't ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn't. The world doesn't owe you a thing.”

Eventually Joy creates a successful manufacturing and marketing empire that provides startup capital for other small entrepreneurs with an idea and a dream. Joy is a triumphant film about the power of persistence and innovation, desperation and conviction, and the possibility that a simple mop can change the world.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Big Short" directed by Adam McKay. Plan B, 2015, 130 minutes; and "Joy," directed by David O. Russell. Annapurna, 2015, 123 minutes.



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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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You Didn't Build That Bridge, Mr. President

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I was so distracted by the president's demeanor as he was reproaching the business community that his words didn't quite register. I had to go back to read what he actually said, and it was worse than I thought:

“If You’ve Got a Business – You Didn’t Build That! Somebody Else Made That Happen.”

Well, apparently it bears repeating: When I, an entrepreneur or businessman, start a business, it usually takes years of persistent work before there is any return on investment: contrary to what you may have heard from modern-liberal bureaucrats, you cannot succeed in business without really trying. I suppose it's true that such an endeavor wouldn't have succeeded had I not been standing on centuries of mercantile tradition and experience, or for that matter had I not had electricity and running water. But that is only to state the obvious.

What, then, was the president getting at? Besides belittling the aspirations of the business class, what was the subtext of his remarks? That government provides the conditions for a civil society that make entrepreneurship possible? I think we already knew that. Newsflash, Mr. President: to the extent that I contribute to the commonweal, pay taxes, keep abreast of the issues, and vote, I am a member of that government. In other words, the agent or silent partner of my labors, the "somebody else [who] made that happen," was me.

Pericles is always relevant in this regard. In his funeral oration, as presented by Thucydides, he said,

Here each individual in interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.

Perhaps this is what Lincoln was also getting at in the final flourish of the Gettysburg Address: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

There has always been some mystery surrounding his use of the words, "of the people." It is obvious that a government by the people is one run by commoners (as opposed to the landed aristocracy), and that a government for the people is one devised for the benefit of everyman (not just a hereditary class of kings or oligarchs), but what exactly did Lincoln mean by a government of the people?

I believe he recognized that insofar as we work, pay taxes, stay informed, and vote, we are not simply passive participants in the democratic process, but constitutive of democratic government itself.

So why do politicians insist on the obsolete dichotomy of government and governed? Is it because the citizenry need leaders to translate their will into effective policies? Or is this an elitist plot to exclude everyman from the esoteric operation of government? If the latter, I have a few words for you prodigies of incumbency occupying the plush seats of government: you didn't build that bridge or that superhighway. Somebody else made that happen.




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The New Normal

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Science is the inspiration of those techno-libertarians who hold that evolutions in technology will ultimately lead to revolutions in political freedom. A commitment to the virtues of small business and entrepreneurs is a major inspiration for the ideals of free market capitalism. So it is easy to think that libertarians might feel that our values were being mocked by two primetime comedies, The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls — the first of which is about scientists and the second about two poor girls who start a business. Yet these sitcoms are deeply touching, hilarious, and also well-intentioned shows — because the audience laughs with the characters, not at them.

The Big Bang Theory, which premiered in 2007 and has now become ubiquitous, with reruns on TBS and new episodes on CBS, is the story of four scientists (two theoretical physicists, an astrophysicist, and an engineer) who work at Caltech. These four scientists are as close to the stereotypical nerd or geek as you can get. They constantly hang out at the local comic book store, play video games, enjoy Star Trek, can’t get girls to date them, and are beaten up by jocks. They constantly make reference to things that only scientists think about. One of them, for instance, dresses for Hallowe’en as the Doppler effect. The producers try to make the science on the show, of which there is a lot, completely accurate, and some episodes feature inside jokes that only scientists can understand.

The characters’ world is turned upside down when Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment down the hall. Penny is an attractive, normal, “popular” sort of girl, who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the protagonist, instantly falls in love with her. Much of the comedy in the show’s early years focused on Leonard’s feelings for Penny, and the jokes frequently involved the science nerds being totally ignorant of what Penny takes for granted (e.g., the rules of football, the names of such popular bands as Radiohead), or Penny being ignorant of the world of science and geek culture (e.g., online role playing games, the Klingon language). Leonard eventually started dating Penny, and they had a cute, adorable romance for about one season. But their relationships was sundered by the scheming machinations of Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton (who plays an evil version of himself). Leonard and Penny just recently got back together, which makes the show more enjoyable.

The real comedic gold, however, comes from Leonard’s roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons, who won an Emmy for the role), a brilliant, supremely arrogant physicist with strong doses of OCD and Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon constantly, and hilariously, insults everyone around him; at the same time everyone else perpetually makes fun of his arrogance and total disconnect from reality. In one episode Leonard calls Sheldon a sphincter, to which Sheldon replies, “The sphincter? A much maligned muscle; did you know there are over twenty different sphincters in the human body?”, and illustrates with an anatomical drawing from the internet.

The writing is usually clever. An instance: Sheldon and Penny are having a fight. Sheldon (threateningly): “You’re playing with forces beyond your ken.” Penny: “Yeah? Well your Ken can kiss my Barbie!” I said “usually.” In a few episodes each season the writing falls flat. This was especially noticeable during the episodes that immediately followed the end of Penny and Leonard’s dating.

But the show is always light-hearted, never serious. It was introduced with the tag line “smart is the new sexy,” yet it never says anything serious about science, or politics, or anything else. The extent of the show’s commentary on religion is Sheldon’s disdain for his Texan Christian mother’s creationism, and Sheldon’s lecturing Penny on the origins of Christmas as a pagan holiday. But the love-hate relationship between Penny, who represents the “normal” popular world, and Leonard, who represents the nerd-geek-science world, is central to the show. Their romance is premised on the idea that the normal, ignorant masses might eventually be able to appreciate the true value of science and technology. The conflict is not precisely between religion and science. It is about the conflict between pop culture and geek culture.

Business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class.

And, yes, true to its tag line, “The Big Bang Theory” makes it cool to be a geek; it turns smart into sexy. Science has not gotten PR this good since the genre of science fiction was first invented. The show goes a long way toward teaching the public about the details of the type of thinking behind science and what scientists do, so that people won’t just see the magical moving pictures on television and may instead actually get a taste of where the wires and circuit boards inside the TV come from. If Leonard can get Penny to date him, even for a while, then there is hope that all the nerds out there (and the scientific attitude they embody) can find acceptance in this world.

Two Broke Girlsstarted this season, so there is less of a body of work by which to judge it, but every episode I have seen has been hilarious. This show is designed as a microcosm of the Great Recession. Caroline (Beth Behrs), a wealthy heiress and Wharton Business School graduate, is thrust into poverty when her father loses their fortune and goes to jail for running a Madoff-style Ponzi scheme. Caroline is hopelessly naïve about how to cope with low-income life. All she has left is her pet horse. Somehow a Wharton degree does not help her to get a white-collar job. She is taken in by Max (Kat Dennings), a young, snarky, sassy, wisecracking waitress who lives in Brooklyn. Caroline becomes Max’s roommate and gets a job as a waitress at the Brooklyn diner where Max works.

Poverty is the constant undercurrent in the show, which lists an update on the amount of money in the two girls’ bank account at the conclusion of each show (it fluctuates between $200 and $800). But the episodes help the audience, nervous about its own finances, laugh at life and not get beaten down by financial worries. After all, Max and Caroline always find a way to survive. The show is remarkably raunchy (one episode had a running joke about the diner’s horny, seedy chef asking the girls’ Polish friend [Jennifer Coolidge], who runs a cleaning business, to “come to my apartment to clean,” and her replying, “You cannot make me come, I will not come”). Max always has a wise-crack or an insult to shoot at someone. Both actresses are superb in their roles.

What do two broke girls do to cope with the Great Recession? One thing they don’t do is wait around for the welfare state to pay their bills. They start a small business instead. Max bakes cupcakes; Caroline sets up a cupcake business and promotes the sale of cupcakes. Much of the plot involves the girls’ desperate schemes to raise money to fund their cupcake website or find new places to sell their cupcakes. It is just good old-fashioned American effort — people trying to rise from poverty by being productive and selling a product to people who want it.

Unfortunately for the audience’s economic education, nowhere to be seen are New York City health inspectors grading their kitchen, or the IRS auditing their financial records, or any of the goon squad of federal, state, and city bureaucrats who in real life would try to regulate and tax the life out of their startup. The show is not political at all; aside from the implicit feminism of two single girls being very assertive and self-sufficient, it has no explicit message. But the simple yet touching portrayal of two tough, smart-alecky girls, who constantly poke fun at the people around them and use their sense of humor as a way to cope with the sorrows of economic disaster, is an inspiration that everyone stricken by the Great Recession can learn from.

A lot of people are talking about “the new normal” in connection with the Great Recession. But what do The Big Bang Theory and Two Broke Girls say about American mainstream culture? These shows are on CBS, which touts itself as “America’s most-watched network,” not a niche market like Fox Business Network. Both shows have consistently received high ratings (although Two Broke Girls had some unfavorable reviews). A show about nerds coping with the world of pop culture has become a symbol of the world of pop culture assimilating nerd culture. From World of Warcraft to urban fantasy novels such as Harry Potter and Twilight, to the popularization of social media on electronic devices, to the omnipresence of the internet, the technology-obsessed geek world of the techno-libertarian has become, well, how shall I say it . . . normal. And a realization that poverty is the new normal, but it is necessary to take a can-do attitude to rise out of it — that is also catching on.

The libertarian angle is clear: business doesn’t really look like old rich white men at a corporate board meeting; it looks like two young women in aprons struggling to build a career and reach the middle class. Inspired by these two shows, I dare to speculate that if technology continues to evolve and shape the world in which we live, and if prolonged financial desperation forces America to wake up to economic reality and embrace free market principles as the path to recovery, then maybe a few decades from now libertarianism will also be . . . dare I say it? the new normal.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Big Bang Theory," CBS, Thursday, 8:00pm; and "Two Broke Girls," CBS, Monday, 8:30pm.



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