Monthly Archives: January 2016


As I continue with this series of blogs about the Presidential candidates, I wondered if I should even do Jeb Bush. After all, the utility of such a project is in telling you about candidates who might actually win. Jeb Bush entered this campaign as the prohibitive favorite of the Republican establishment. It’s just bad luck and bad timing that this election cycle happens to be one in which the electorate is completely fed up with the party establishment. Jeb! has been plugging along at around 3% in the polls, getting humiliated in the debates and spending buckets of money with no results to show for it. It’s become a comical campaign, especially for a serious-minded, issue oriented candidate. And the harmless affectation of that exclamation point on all his posters and literature has become the punch-line for late-night comics.

Still, he could win. It’s not impossible to construct a scenario in which his massive campaign war chest actually starts to mean something–a decent showing in Iowa, a comeback third-place in New Hampshire, maybe a South Carolina win. None of that’s likely; none of it is impossible. And he’s supposed to be the wonkish Bush, the issues guy, the thoughtful candidate. Let’s see how his positions stack up.

Let me also say that I really like his website. (The best that money could buy?) I like the way he divides the Issues section up into further subcategories: Safer, Stronger, Freer. It’s easy to navigate, attractively presented. And when you read the actual issues’ statements, the good ones are in first-person, and are well-written and smart. On border security, for example, he demonstrates a solid sense of the actual challenges faced by the border patrol. The point of border security is not to keep everyone out; it’s to prevent drug cartels from moving product. He proposes a complex combination of strategies–better roads and infrastructure, electronic surveillance, faster transport vehicles. The emphasis is on flexibility, quickness, rapid response.

That section’s solid and smart. The section on ‘defeating ISIS’ is much less impressive. It’s not in first-person, suggesting a lack of engagement. What he can’t say, really, is that ISIS is essentially the inadvertent step-child of his brother’s policies. What would he do about it? The real question is this: would Jeb Bush send ground troops to defeat ISIS. He doesn’t quite say, but statements like “make better use of US ground forces,” no longer crippling their efforts with “overly-restrictive rules of engagement” are clear enough. Call me cynical, but he’s a Bush; he’s going to send troops to the Middle East. Again.

On the economy, we get sheer mendacity. Here’s the key statement. First he talks about our current poor economy ‘barely growing at 2% a year. Then he says this:

I have proposed pro-growth policies designed to achieve 4 percent growth, create 19 million new jobs and increase middle class incomes. I know these policies will work because I did it in Florida. We lowered taxes every year I was governor – totaling more than $19 billion. We reduced regulations and cut the state bureaucracy by over 10 percent. These pro-growth policies made Florida number one in small business creation, helped create 1.3 million new jobs and increased middle class incomes by $1,300. We can create similar job and income growth for the nation.

So, we look at this, and we’re supposed to say to ourselves ‘wow. That’s an impressive record. And a 4% growth rate would be terrific! So what’s the problem?’

The problem is, we’re not idiots. Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Florida, like the rest of the nation, benefitted, in 2007, from a bubble economy, built on impressive growth in the real estate sector and in the sale of CDO’s in financial markets. In 2007, it all blew up. In 2008, the US and world economies nearly collapsed altogether. And we all know that! We were there! And we haven’t forgotten! (Nor have we forgotten that your last name is Bush. Unfair, but . . . .)

And that tepid 2% growth rate? That’s for the entire Obama Presidency, including 2009, 2010, 2011, when the President was trying to save an economy trapped in the Great Recession. The current rate of economic growth right now? 3.8%. Close enough to the 4% that Bush holds up as the standard to which he aspires. Which he suggests can be achieved by more tax cuts, and more de-regulation. The very policies that caused the Great Recession.

So, no thanks on the economy. His plans are to bust the budget, and create another financial crisis. I’m not being fair, of course, but neither is he. His impressive economic record is entirely the result of one factor; he got out in time. And we all know that’s true. So is there another section where his celebrated intellect might shine a bit more clearly?

Health care? I read his section on health care with some interest. Obviously, he loathes Obamacare; he’s a conservative. What he do instead?

You have to read between the lines a little bit, but basically, he wants a version of the ACA that also provides people with crappier insurance. All the things people like about Obamacare are part of his plan. No more denial of insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. Portability. Exchanges. States offered incentives to expand Medicaid. Federal dollars subsidizing premiums. That’s all Obamacare.

Here’s the difference: “enabling access to affordable, catastrophic plans.” It turns out that that’s his problem with Obamacare; insurance plans purchased on the exchanges are too expensive. And they are. Nobody really questions that. A lot of ACA exchange insurance companies lost money initially, and raised their rates. He wants to solve this problem by allowing insurance companies to offer worse policies. ‘Catastrophic’ plans. Which is to say, insurance plans that offer no benefits for most, normal, health issues, but that do kick in for really big-ticket emergencies–cancer, heart disease, serious accidents.

It goes without saying that rich people get better health care than poor do. That’s always been true, and will continue. But to some extent, Obamacare leveled that playing field. Families on ACA exchange policies got coverage for preventive health care; antibiotics for an infection, regular check-ups, x-rays in case of an injury, or an MRI, or a CAT scan for other conditions. Jeb! would get rid of all of that. If you’re in a poor family, and your kid got cancer, that would be covered, though with a high enough deductible that you probably would be bankrupted. But if she broke her leg horsing around in the back yard, you’d be on the hook for x-rays and orthopedics.

Bush’s plan would cover some of that through HSAs; Health Savings Accounts. They’re sort of a hot conservative idea. It’s a tax-advantaged medical savings account, and it would roll-over year after year, and accumulate. Conservatives like HSAs, because they make people accountable for their own health care–it encourages you to shop around, and it removes insurance companies saying nasty things like ‘that’s not a covered benefit.’

Here’s why they don’t work: We The People don’t know enough to be smart consumers. There’s an asymmetry of information at play. I’m likely to agree to a medical test or procedure if my doctor orders it, because he knows what he’s doing, presumably, and I don’t. Now, this could mean doctors ordering unnecessary tests or procedures, especially if they profit financially by them. I honestly don’t think that happens all that often. I see many many many doctors, and I’ve never had the tiniest grounds to question the basic integrity of any of them. I do sometimes question a diagnosis or treatment; I try to be an informed patient. But I am fully aware that their training and knowledge exceeds mine by a considerable degree.

And there’s no way to solve that. Oh, there have been attempts; Houston’s 2nd Opinion, for example, a web-based service where you can ask other doctors for another analysis. It doesn’t matter. Information asymmetry is still the most salient fact about health care; doctors really do better than we do. A ‘market-based’ health care solution–the conservative Holy Grail–isn’t really achievable. Medicare works; employer-based insurance, sort of works, Obamacare will work, in time. Not much else.

What Bush tacitly admits here is that Obamacare, with all its flaws, really is a workable approach, but that it also needs tweaking. Increase the premium subsidy, for example. Tell states to stop screwing around with Medicaid. But lousy insurance-plus-HSAs (essentially the Bush proposal) won’t work. Unless we really do believe that poorer people should get rotten insurance. “If they’re going to die,” said Scrooge, “then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

So, this is what wonkish Republican establishment orthodoxy looks like. Budget-busting tax cuts. A new tax code favoring rich folks. More ground troops in foreign lands. Crappier insurance for poor people. Jeb!’s website looks great, and there are some good ideas there, on immigration reform, for example. But mostly, it’s a testament to the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican party. On the campaign trail, Jeb Bush doesn’t particularly look like he wants to be President. Good thing he’s probably not going to be.


Movie Review: Room

When I walked into the theater to see Room, I couldn’t help but notice three older women sitting together two rows behind me. Hearing them chat before the movie began, I learned that they did this all the time; that they were part of a movie-going club with a few of their friends. They were excited; had heard great things about Room, and especially Brie Larson’s Oscar-nominated leading performance. When the movie was over, I sat in my chair, devastated and in tears. I managed to get up, and I looked back at the three women. They were dabbing away at their eyes with kleenex. One of them looked over at me. “Oh, my,” she said. “That was so. . . ” And then she couldn’t finish her sentence. I knew how she felt.

Room is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel; she also wrote this spare but finely crafted screenplay. Directed by the Irish director Lennie Abrahamson. Larson plays a young woman who was kidnapped years earlier, and confined in a tiny room, in a shed, in the back yard of her abductor and rapist. She has been there for seven years, and has a five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who calls her Ma. Jack has never left this place. He calls it Room. As far as he knows, it’s the entire universe. He has also named their sparse possessions: Chair, Other Chair, Sink, Rug. The first half of the movie is entirely located there, in Room, with the two of them. At night, Ma puts Jack to bed in the closet, and shuts the door. She doesn’t want him to see her being violated by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the vicious monster who feeds them, provides for them, has incarcerated them, and who alone knows the combination to the door lock.

In a sense, then, it’s a movie about Ma and Jack, and their escape from horror. But they do manage to escape, due to Ma’s careful plotting and Jack’s courage. They escape Room physically. But they have to escape Room mentally, psychologically, perhaps even, in a real sense, metaphysically. Room dominates them, infects them, swamps their senses and warps their perceptions. And five-year-old Jack has the resilience of youth going for him. Which Ma, a teen when captured, can no longer rely on.

So that’s part of the film, a psycho-drama. Perhaps it could even be seen as a case study for PTSD. But to say that is almost ludicrously reductive for a film as rich as Room. Room has not just destroyed Ma’s life. It has infected the lives of her parents, Nancy (Joan Allen), and Robert (William H. Macy).

Macy’s only in two scenes, and given only a couple of minutes of screen time. I’ve always believed that Macy is one of the world’s great character actors, and this film does not misuse him. It’s hard for language to capture how devastating his performance is, and how crucial Robert is to the film’s themes. But I’ll try. It’s because Robert has allowed Room to destroy him. He doesn’t even know it, but we can see it clearly; he will never recover from what Room has done to him. To him, not just to his daughter and newly discovered grandson. Room, in this case, is a metaphor for confinement, for rape and abuse and violence and deprivation. She lived it. He’s lived it to, in his mind, in his imagination, and it has turned him into a grotesque parody of humanity. Robert can only go through the motions of polite dinner conversation; he’s become incapable of actual human interaction. Macy, with those haunted eyes, pulls it off.

Nancy’s stronger than he is, and more capable of connecting to ‘her Strong.’ (Jack has never had a haircut, and tells his grandmother that his hair is where his Strong is. The scene where she finally cuts his hair is among the most powerful in the movie.) The more we get to know Robert and Nancy, the more inevitable their divorce strikes us. But she’s remarried, to Leo (Tom McCamus), shaggy and instinctively kind. And for Leo, Jack is . . . a kid. A bright, courageous, wonderful kid. And it’s through Leo (and Leo’s dog, Seamus), that the film performs its final miracle.

We saw it prefigured earlier on. After Jack escapes, he has to explain to a policewoman (Amanda Brugel) where his Ma is. And of course, he has no frame of reference from which to do that, and is anyway completely overwhelmed by the size, by the sheer reality of, well, reality. Remember, he’s never been out, and isn’t even quite sure there is anything outside Room. (He can’t even tell them Ma’s real name). But with immense patience and kindness, the policewoman talks to him, builds him up, gains his trust. Gets the information. Rescues Ma. That was the first time I cried.

Because, ultimately, Room isn’t about Room at all. It’s about courage, it’s about kindness, it’s about recovery and forgiveness, and it’s about love. That’s why I was so in tears at the end. It’s a film about horror and violence and evil, but it’s also about redemption. Abrahamson and Donoghue pull off something miraculous with this piece; without ever, at any time descending to sentimentality or mawkishness, they construct a film that revels in what’s best in humankind.

Room is shattering. But as I left, I didn’t feel shattered. It’s devastating, without devastating us. And Brie Larson’s final moment, her final line, captures the ultimate human victory over Room.

We are not the sum total of our traumas. We’re more than just victims. We’re Jack. We’re Ma. We can do this. What a tremendous film achievement.

John Kasich, policy analysis

Once again, I look at a major party Presidential candidate, and the policies he favors. So far, I’ve done Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio. Now it’s time for John Kasich.

Kasich’s appeal is that he’s not crazy. That’s how he presents himself, as the serious, thoughtful alternative to the more extreme Republicans running. When Rachel Maddow appeared on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, and he pressed her to name the Republican she’d support if she had to pick one, she very reluctantly named Kasich. It makes sense. He probably is the most reasonable Republican running. Granted, he’s probably not going to be President; he’s a poor debater and not much of a public speaker. But he comes across as a decent guy, and I expected his website to be substantive, sober in tone and well put together. And so it was.

For example, there’s a website link to ‘Issues,’ which I found welcome and refreshing, unlike Rubio’s, which is so busy you really have to search to find anything substantive. And the issues Kasich highlights are mostly important ones: Education, National Security, the Economy. Of course, he’s a Republican, and Republicans care about gun rights, so that’s a category. I don’t get it, but conservative voters expect it, so okay.

There’s also a pro-life link; also de rigueur for conservatives, I suppose. I checked out that section, and it’s sensible. He opposes late-term and partial birth abortions. But, as governor of Ohio, he streamlined the adoption process, making it easier for people to adopt. I like that; offer an alternative to abortion. He also added a private/public partnership with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, in which the state hires specialists tasked with finding families for older kids in foster care. Good for Ohio. He also created (but underfunded) a Parenting and Pregnancy Support program that provides new mothers from underprivileged backgrounds practical support; cribs, formula, diapers, plus basic parenting advice.

His Education section is similar: conservative, but sensible. Of course, he sees education as a state issue, and resists federal standards. I’m okay with that. He wants parents to help set state education standards. Ohio, under his leadership, has a program to identify third graders who can’t read, and provide them with remedial help, another good idea. I’m not wild about school choice and voucher programs. Still, the picture is of a hands-on conservative governor with a strong commitment to education in his state.

Website links suggest policy priorities, and he’s got a whole section on ‘Lifting Up the Most Vulnerable Americans.’ Good for him. Again, the specifics he offers are a mix of venerable Republican nostrums: workfare, expanding the EIC. But Ohio also has increased spending for mental health facilities, and early childhood intervention programs. Yay! And, of course, he was one of the few Republican governors to accept the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Here’s my takeaway: John Kasich is a genuine Christian, a decent, conservative man who wants to help people who are struggling, and is unafraid to use the resources of government to accomplish it. Boy, we could sure do worse.

I was very interested to explore his link Fiscal Responsibility and Balancing Budgets. I found that section very disappointing, however. He doesn’t really make any specific budgetary proposals. That page’s entirely focused on the past, and on his achievements in Congress and as Governor of Ohio. He claims that as Chair of the House Budget committee, he ‘led the effort’ to balance the budget and pay down the debt. Well, no. In fact, leadership on the budget was provided by President Bill Clinton, who make tax hikes the center of his plan, tax hikes that Kasich opposed.

And Kasich’s own record in Ohio essentially involves making the Ohio tax code more regressive, and therefore less progressive. See, for example, this analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:

Kasich’s legacy in Ohio is a substantial tax shift from the wealthy taxpayers of his state toward low- and middle income families. At the same time, he has deprived the state of revenue to pay for critical investments in infrastructure, education and public safety.

What would he do as President? He doesn’t say. There’s no budget proposal, no tax proposal, no economic plan. There’s another economic link on his site: called Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy: it’s also non-specific, and focused entirely on his past record, with no sense of a plan for the nation’s future. And, as governor of Ohio, he cut the Estate tax, cut the highest brackets of state income tax, and tried to cut capital gains taxes. Those would all be budget-busting priorities if applied on the national level.

The fact is, Kasich became governor of Ohio in 2010. The narrative his website supports is: Ohio was in bad shape before I took office, but now it’s doing so much better. Well, that’s true enough, but it leaves out the most specifically relevant historical context. Ohio’s economy suffered in 2010, because all state economies were struggling; the aftermath of the world-wide economic crisis. Ohio’s recovery tracks the US economic recovery. In other words, his record as governor is only superficially impressive; in fact, Ohio benefited from the Obama recovery, which is still continuing. His plan, to the extent that he has one, is pure Republican orthodoxy: cut taxes, cut regulations, balance the budget. Burn down the forest, then build the ship.

And then we get to National Security. And there it is:

Wiping ISIS off the map requires a complex, collaborative strategy involving mutual defense action by NATO—as well as regional allies—in the wake of the attack on France, intensifying international intelligence cooperation, increasing support to the highly-effective Kurdish military, creating safe havens and no-fly zones, combating human trafficking in refugees, a NATO & regional coalition with ground troops, and more aggressively fighting the war of ideas to discredit ISIS.

It sounds impressive. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. But there is it, right at the end: ground troops. NATO troops, which means, American ground forces. He’s talking about another foreign war. American men and women on the ground, in a war that really, actually, doesn’t involve American interests, in a region where their presence is already resented. You liked Afghanistan and Iraq? John Kasich has part III spooled up, ready to air.

And yet, once again, in the middle of the paragraph cited above, there’s one line that reflects Kasich’s basic decency: ‘combating human trafficking in refugees.’ No one else is talking about this issue, but it’s a real problem: Syrian refugees in the Middle East are being preyed upon. There may be as many as three quarters of a million Syrian refugees entrapped in what is essentially slavery, mostly in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Both nations are classified as Tier Three Human Traffickers, the worst designation, by the US State Department and the UN. It’s a human rights nightmare. And of all the Presidential candidates running, John Kasich is the only one talking about it.

But that’s Kasich. My impression of him is that he’s a decent guy, with the instincts of a philanthropist, a Christian in the best sense of the word. Not an ideologue, an effective practical politician. But, as far as I can tell, he has a budget-busting economic plan, and proposes a foreign policy that would involve US troops in another unnecessary and unworkable foreign intervention. There are worse candidates running. But there’s at least one candidate who is better.


Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was always the other movie in town. You know what I mean? When my wife and I wanted to see a movie, it was always ‘should we see Bridge of Spies, or should we see . . . ‘ It looked like a really good movie. It’s Spielberg on American history; always something he does well. It had a screenplay by the Coen brothers. It starred Tom Hanks. There was no reason not to see it. But somehow, we missed it, week after week.

I wish now we’d seen it. It’s a terrific film, a deserving Best Picture nominee.  And it occurred to me that it’s one of the few truly excellent films about the Cold War that I’ve seen. But there’s something about it that does feel rather ‘other film in town.’ It’s a structural issue in the film itself.

The film begins in 1957, with the capture of a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance attorney, but with a background as one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to defend Abel, but it’s made clear to him by everyone–his law partners and the trial judge included–that his defense is meant to be perfunctory; that it’s not any part of his task to actually get the guy off. But Donovan’s the real deal, a terrific attorney, and a genuine true believer in what America’s supposed to stand for, including rule of law and due process. He can’t quite win the case, but he comes darn close, and he does argue successfully against the death penalty, saving his client’s life.

Cut ahead to 1960, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot, shot down over the Soviet Union. Cut ahead two more years, to ’62, and as the Berlin wall is under construction, Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. As he arrives, he learns of an American grad student, Fredric Prior (Will Rogers) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, preposterously, accused of espionage. And so Donovan decides to exceed his mandate and trade Abel for both guys. Who are held by different authorities–Soviet and East German. And all very much against the wishes of Donovan’s CIA handlers.

These are all terrific conflicts. The Cold War environment. The willingness of the CIA to let Prior freeze in an East German prison. The mysterious functionaries, Russian and German, Donovan has to deal with. It’s a great story, about a genuinely heroic American negotiating complicated moral terrain while keeping true to his own best sense of himself and his country. I liked the whole film. I loved the testy exchanges between Donovan and his various antagonists, US and Commie.

There isn’t anything not to like about the movie. It introduces us to a heroic American most people have never heard of–all to the good. It explores a history that we continue to find fascinating. It’s also an exceptionally well-made film–tautly paced and beautifully filmed.

I just can’t help but notice that the stakes aren’t actually all that high for Donovan, the protagonist. There’s a great scene early in the film where he meets with a CIA agent, who wants to know what he’s learning from Abel. Donovan says he can’t tell him: attorney-client privilege. The CIA guy says, ‘we’re in a war, if you’re a patriot, you have to tell me anything that might affect American interests.’ And Donovan asks him this: ‘your name is Hoffman, right? You’re of German ancestry? And I’m Irish, both sides. So what makes us both Americans? We both agree on the same set of rules. We call it the Constitution. So, no, I will not violate attorney-client privilege.’ It’s a terrific scene, and it tells us everything we need to know about Donovan.

But mostly, the stakes aren’t very high for him. As he walks to a meeting at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the ruined city seems dangerous and menacing. It’s beautifully acted and filmed. But he’s really not actually in much danger. He’s a remarkable man, and I applaud Spielberg for telling his story. But his task doesn’t really endanger him. Or at least, not much. In fact, throughout the East Berlin scenes, we’re told repeatedly that he’s suffering from a head cold. And that does complicate things for the poor guy. But that’s all.

So it’s a very interesting and engaging film, and I liked it very much indeed. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s up for an Academy Award. But I don’t think it’s going to win. It’s an A-minus film, and one I’m glad we finally saw. Films don’t have to have a protagonist up against life-threatening odds. Sometimes a threat to his integrity can carry a film. That’s what happens here.

Marco Rubio on economic policy

My project continues. I intend to look at the various candidates for President in this election and see where they stand on policy. What are their legislative priorities, what specifically do they intend to accomplish, how realistic are their plans? I’ve done this for Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz; now it’s time to look at Marco Rubio.

It’s trickier for Rubio than it was for the other two. His website is frustratingly non-specific about policy, though exceedingly specific about the various ways you can donate money to the Rubio campaign. It’s a hard-sell approach. Marco Rubio is running for President, he’s a conservative, he doesn’t like Hillary Clinton, and he wants you to send him money. That’s the immediate take-away.

Rubio’s website has many many links, most of them non-substantive–things like ‘Meet our Nevada Campaign Chair!’ and ‘What was Marco’s first job?’ and ‘Marco answers a question from an eleven-year old!’ Very few actually deal with policy. But there are a few, including one on Debt. Here I find what I expected to see on Ted Cruz’s website, a strong stance on debt and spending and how it’s “Time to Rein in Washington Spending.” Cruz doesn’t seem to regard Debt as a priority issue in this campaign. Rubio, at least, pays lip service to it.

His actual proposals range from boiler-plate Republican to, frankly, kind of silly. He wants a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. He’s going to save ‘trillions’ in spending by repealing Obamacare. (Snork). He wants a line item veto. He wants to end ‘taxpayer spending on abortions.’ (Which right now is zero, so that one will help tons.) He’s against ‘pork-barrel spending.’ My personal favorite is one I haven’t seen before: “Allow states to refund unused spending to pay down the national debt.” Yeah, I bet states will be clamoring to do that.

He doesn’t really outline an economic plan on his website. There’s a link to something called ‘Rubio’s economic plan,’ but all you find there is another link, to a half-hour talk he gave in Detroit. I listened to the darn thing; it’s not uninteresting. Rhetorically, he posits an ‘economy of the past’ (high taxes, big government, excessive regulation) and an ‘economy of the future’ (no regulations, low taxes, smaller government–a libertarian paradise). He imagines a ‘New American Economy,’ by spinning a yarn, about ‘David’ a small businessman in Detroit, struggling to succeed, but overwhelmed by regulations and taxes, and ‘Danielle,’ David’s employee, a single Mom struggling to pay her bills.

Rubio, in the Detroit talk, does get specific. He wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 25%, including for small business. But ‘David,’ our fictional small businessman, could also apply his business expansion expenses to his tax bill, cutting his taxes further. Rubio wants to get rid of capital gains taxes. He’d remove most tax deductions. He’d increase the EIC. He would also provide a wage tax credit, an additional $500. He would get rid of Dodd-Frank, and cut other small business regulations. He would also cut personal income taxes, with just two tax brackets, at 15% and 35%. He’s in favor of the TPP.

There’s a lot to like here, honestly.  And I think corporate taxes should be cut. Right now, our corporate tax rate is non-competitive, which is why American corporations take advantage of every tax loophole lobbyists can persuade Congress to create. A high corporate tax that mostly doesn’t get collected ends up not actually raising much revenue, right?  I like expanding the Earned Income Credit. I think Dodd-Frank is a deeply flawed piece of legislation; if not repealed, it certainly should be reformed. (I would replace it with a reformed version of Glass-Steagal). I like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and like the fact what that means: that he’s a free-trader.

In his Detroit talk, Rubio’s fictional small businessman looks at the regulations he has to live with, and agrees with some of them, but thinks others are foolish and burdensome. So essentially, Rubio isn’t so much anti-regulation as pro-regulation-reform. I suppose that, as a self-proclaimed liberal Democrat, I should be appalled by that. But I’m not. I think that makes a lot of sense. If there are small business regulations that don’t work or don’t make sense or are unnecessarily burdensome, I’m all in favor of getting rid of them. And I don’t know a single liberal Democrat who wouldn’t agree.

(This needs to be said: because conservatives like small government, it follows that liberals must like big government. But we don’t; liberals don’t care about the size of government. Because conservatives oppose business regulations, it follows that liberals must like business regulations, and want more of them. But we don’t. We don’t care how many regulations there are. We just want sensible ones. We want businesses to not pollute the air or water, not damage their employees, pay people adequately. We’re not pro-regulation; we’re anti-crook.)

So when I hear Rubio talk about a New American Century, and tell his tale of poor David and Danielle, the small business owner and his employee, I think there are some good ideas in there. I think that if Marco Rubio were to put those ideas into some kind of legislation, there are a lot of Democrats who would be happy to work with him.

But let’s be honest, as an entire package, the numbers just don’t add up. Here’s‘s the Wall Street Journal’s analysis:

The plan would eliminate trillions in tax revenue.

The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution that provides tax policy analysis, estimates $2.4 trillion in revenue would be lost in the first 10 years. The non-partisan Tax Foundation has an even steeper projection of $4 trillion.

“It’s not at all clear that he even intends to pay for his rate reduction, so I wouldn’t say his plan is corporate tax reform so much as just a giant corporate tax cut,” said Harry Stein, director of the fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive public policy research and advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. “That’s really the most important thing to keep in mind with this plan, is just how completely divorced it is from any sense of fiscal reality.”

Really hard-core supply-side economists do think that, long-term, those tax cuts would stimulate economic growth in positive ways. That’s an ideological position, though, not one factually grounded. In fact, when we look at the history of tax cuts and growth, it’s clear that massive tax cuts for the wealthy only stimulate growth under certain circumstances. If the biggest problem in the economy is a lack of investment capital, then a big tax cut on rich guys can help. That was the case with the Kennedy/Johnson tax cut in 1963, for example. But under most circumstances, tax cuts have almost no stimulative affect at all. And, of course, most of the time, tax cuts make for disastrous fiscal policy.

So with Rubio, we get strong anti-debt, anti-deficit rhetoric. He promises to balance the budget without raising taxes, by cutting spending to the bone. That’s actually not possible, really. Reducing deficits generally requires movement on both fronts; cutting federal spending, increasing federal revenues. And, of course, every time the government increases taxes, as happened with Clinton, with Bush 41, with Obama, the Right howls about how disastrous that tax increase will be for the economy. Tax increases will increase unemployment! They’ll send the economy into recession! And none of that ever happens. There’s essentially no reason to think that modest, carefully targeted tax increases negatively impact the economy.

Still, okay. Rubio proposes to balance the budget by cutting spending, without raising taxes. But then, when you look at his economic plan, it’s built on massive spending increases. He doesn’t call his tax cuts ‘spending increases,’ because spending=bad. But a tax cut is money that would go into the Treasury, but doesn’t. It’s money that goes to private individuals and their businesses instead to the government. And you could say ‘well, it was their money to begin with and anyway they’ll spend it more responsibly.’ Fine; I’m familiar with the rhetoric. It still doesn’t add up to fiscally responsible budgeting.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you are a conservative who is deeply concerned with the debt and deficit, and think fiscal responsibility is and should be an important issue in this Presidential campaign, you cannot, CANNOT vote for a Republican in 2016. Rubio paid lip service to debt reduction, and Cruz did not, but it doesn’t matter. They both propose budgets that will increase the deficit and debt by trillions of dollars. And as we continue with this exercise, I will demonstrate how this is true for all the rest of the field as well.


Ted Cruz’s domestic policies

Yesterday, I took a critical look at Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. Made sense: she’s a former Secretary of State. Next up, Ted Cruz.

In his case, I’m going to look at his domestic policies. In one of the Republican debates, asked about what he would do with ISIS, Cruz said he would ‘carpet bomb’ the areas controlled by ISIS, to see ‘if sand can glow in the dark.’ That’s not a foreign policy; that’s the way the villain in a comic book movie taunts the hero. I’m not going to examine Ted Cruz’s foreign policy, because as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have one. Just rhetorical posturing.

But, to be fair, maybe he’s stronger in the area of domestic policy.  Here’s his campaign website. He links to nine main subcategories, one of which is the 2nd Amendment. This means that he regards protecting gun rights as one of the nine most important issues facing the United States. In a Cruz Presidency, if you want to buy a gun, you won’t find it difficult to do so. Kind of the way things are right now.

Another of the Big Nine: Restoring the Constitution. Again, I’m not impressed. Every candidate running, from either party, supports and defends the Constitution. President Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. From the website: “unfortunately, recent administrations have defied the Constitution and the rule of law, and as a result we are less free.” Since this is not actually true, it makes nonsense of his next bullet point:  “We need to restore the Constitution as our standard.” The Constitution already is our standard. Different people interpret it differently, that’s all.

What is interesting in this section is the way it refers to actions Cruz has taken to ‘restore the constitution.’ He “defended the phrase ‘under God’ in the Texas Pledge of Allegiance in federal district court.” Since the Framers chose never to mention God in their Constitution, and since they certainly had no idea about a ‘Pledge of Allegiance’, an idea that would have horrified them, it’s a little weird to see this factoid appear in a section supporting constitutional originalism. But in his capacity as Texas Solicitor-General, Cruz did fight for ‘under God.’ Of course, to say that Cruz was Solicitor-General for Texas is a bit like saying that Inspector Javert was a French cop. He was a constitutional activist. I presume that, as President, that would continue.

He would, he says, preserve ‘life, marriage and the family,’ and would ‘investigate Planned Parenthood.’ He opposes marriage equality, but doesn’t say what he’d do about it, since it’s currently the law of the land. Basically, he throws some boilerplate talking points to religious conservatives. And, of course, he’s staunchly pro-life.

But then we look at his economic plan. Essentially, he proposes . . . tithing.

Under the Cruz Simple Flat Tax, all income groups will see a double-digit increase in after-tax income. The current seven rates of personal income tax will collapse into a single low rate of 10 percent. For a family of four, the first $36,000 will be tax-free. The IRS will cease to exist as we know it.

There was a time when Cruz seemed to support a European VAT (Value Added Tax). He called it a ‘Business Flat Tax.’ When the conservative Tax Foundation scored it, they were very positive. From Cruz’ website:

The results will be truly dramatic. According to the well-respected Tax Foundation, the Simple Flat Tax will deliver an economic boost of tremendous magnitude. In the first decade, the Simple Flat Tax will 1) Boost Gross Domestic Product by 13.9 percent above what is currently projected. 2) Increase wages by 12.2 percent. 3) Create 4,861,000 additional jobs.

But that was back when Cruz supported his VAT-style consumption tax. He’s been attacked for it by Marco Rubio (the rancor of the Rubio/Cruz feud is truly astounding), and it’s now gone from his website. According to the Tax Foundation’s analysis, 71% of federal revenues would disappear if the Business Flat Tax was no longer part of the plan. He also would eliminate payroll taxes, leaving no proposal to pay for Social Security or Medicare.

I assume that Cruz still wants a Business Flat Tax, and that he’s taken it off the website because he’s been attacked for it, and doesn’t want to give his opponents ammunition. Even so, if you’re a conservative and you believe that balancing the budget should be a top priority, then the Cruz plan must strike you as peculiarly irresponsible. It would obviously be wonderful if the US GDP were to increase 13.9%, or if 4.8 million domestic jobs could be created. But those projections are based on nothing but wishful thinking, really. And even if those wonderful things were to happen, we’re still looking at massively increased deficits. It’s impossible to estimate how much deficits would increase–Cruz doesn’t provide enough details of his plans for anyone to run the numbers. But called it the “most irresponsible Republican tax cut yet.”

Cruz bets that his personal and business flat taxes will stimulate the economy sufficiently to pay for themselves. That would be lovely. But as the Washington Post pointed out, “the gap between the dynamic estimate of his plan’s cost and the more traditional “static” one is a cavernous $2.8 trillion.” And even if the dynamic estimate, Cruz’s optimistic estimate, turned out to be true, we’re still talking about a deficit of 768 billion over ten years.

But here’s what’s really weird about Cruz’s plan. If there’s one thing conservatives have always at least said they believe in, it’s fiscal prudence. When I talk to my conservative friends, and ask what specific issues they have with the Obama Presidency, they always, without fail, accuse him of fiscal irresponsibility. I hear it over and over again: we cannot pass a massive debt on to our grandchildren. The federal government cannot spend money it doesn’t have. We can’t borrow and borrow forever. We have, as a nation, too much debt.

So when I went on Ted Cruz’s website, I expected more of the same. I expected a jeremiad about President Obama’s profligacy, and a call for responsible budgeting. I expected, in fact, a section on exactly what programs Senator Cruz intends to cut, how much savings those cuts would generate, and how important a balanced budget it. I expected, in addition, a call for a balanced budget Constitutional amendment.

It’s not there. He’s not even rhetorically a fiscal conservative. Really, there’s essentially nothing on the website about the budget, or the debt, or the deficit. Instead, we have a very iffy and quite revolutionary new tax plan, a radical restructuring of the way the government raises revenues. If enacted, it would absolutely blow a huge hole in the federal budget. And the centerpiece of his plan used to be, at least, a European-style VAT. Honestly, it seems weird to me.

When he talks about foreign policy, Cruz comes across as completely irresponsible, what with all that macho posturing about making sand glow. (Is he seriously suggesting a nuclear strike against ISIS?) Essentially, he does not have a foreign policy, at least not one grown-ups could take seriously. Looking at his website, he doesn’t have an economic plan either. What he does have is a preposterous pipe dream, a foolish pie-in-the-sky proposal to cut all taxes to the bone, and yay!, the economy will boom! I give it an F. And conclude that Ted Cruz does not support serious policies. Above all, he is an absurd and frivolous economic thinker. And in what possible sense could he even be considered a conservative?

Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy

Let’s talk policy. 2016 is a Presidential election year. So who should we vote for? What I thought I’d do is look at the campaign websites for all the major candidates, and see what they actually have to say on the major issues of the day. I don’t care much about personalities or who said what where or voting records. I care about policy.

I’ll grant you that the most important qualities in a President aren’t easily identified. When George W. Bush ran for President, he had no idea that his Presidency would be defined by a massive terrorist attack on our biggest city. Obama didn’t initially run in order to fix a major world-wide financial crisis. The policies this year’s candidates advocate now are also likely to be overtaken by events. But by looking at the policies they favor now, we do get a window into their thinking, their priorities and their approach.

I want to be open about my biases. I call myself ‘a playwright with wifi.’ I am a retired Theatre Professor, working now as a free-lance playwright, director, and critic. My PhD is in history, albeit the history of entertainment. I call myself a liberal Democrat, but I really see myself as a pragmatist. I also have a background in economics, not because I have any academic training in the field, but because I had to spend two years researching a play I once wrote about Keynes and Hayek. I read broadly and widely, and I try to apply a scholar’s rigor to the issues I consider. I also am more than willing to admit it when I’m wrong. So if I’m wrong, tell me.

So, I want to start by looking at Hillary Clinton, and the ‘national security’ section on her website:

“I believe the future holds far more opportunities than threats if we exercise creative and confident leadership that enables us to shape global events rather than be shaped by them.”

My guess is that this statement tested well. It’s got all kinds of feel-good language: ‘creative and confident,’ ‘opportunities,’ ‘shape events.’ But that last clause gives me pause. “Shape global events rather than be shaped by them.” This suggests an interventionist foreign policy. In our history, this hasn’t often worked out very well.

While Clinton was Secretary of State, the US intervened in Libya–supported one faction in a civil war–and the result is, today, a failed state. We tried to intervene in Syria–supported pro-Western Syrian militias–and that couldn’t not have worked out much worse. The Arab Spring looked like an opportunity to ‘shape events.’ But it’s difficult to see that we accomplished much. Egypt went from a military dictatorship to . . . another military dictatorship. Iraq is still a mess. ISIS controls much of eastern Iraq and northern Syria. We tried to reshape the Middle East, and we accomplished very little.  (I’m not saying, BTW, that either John McCain or Mitt Romney would have done much better).

I suppose the US can claim some successes in Tunisia, where in 2008, we supported the secular and leftist Ennahda party. Tunisia held free elections in 2011, and for once, someone we liked won: Moncef Marzouki. That led to trade agreements with the European Union, and today, Tunisia’s economy is growing. But, really, Tunisia’s comparative success has a lot more to do with the Tunisian people than with US support. And, of course, Tunisia is badly threatened by the instability in its larger neighbor, Libya.

Clinton was there for the early negotiations in what would become the Iran nuclear deal. That deal is a clear win. It took years of patient, painstaking negotiation, but the result is a genuine deterrent to Iran’s nuclear program, and has led to better relations with the Iranian regime. It was successful, though, mostly because of the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, and his appointment of American-educated, pro-Western scholar Mohammed Zarif as Foreign Minister. There’s a misconception in the US about the nature of Iran’s government. We tend to think the mullahs run everything. In fact, they mostly have veto power, which, in regards to the Iran nuclear deal, they have not exercised.

As these examples show, I think, American foreign policy has to be, at least to some extent, reactive. Every nation on earth conducts foreign policy according to its government’s perception of national interest. We were able to make a good deal with Iran because Iran’s leadership believed that a nuclear deal was in Iran’s best interests. That deal would not have been possible with the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

(This is the point Mr. Trump seems to have difficulty grasping. Mexico won’t build a wall because we insist on it. They’ll only do so if the Mexican government concludes that building one is in Mexico’s best interests. Which it isn’t. So they won’t. Granted, Donald Trump is not a serious person running a serious campaign. He’s a buffoon. But the basic principle is worth remembering. We can’t make other governments do anything they don’t think is good for their people.)

Let’s look at the other main points on Clinton’s website. She wants to “establish a strong foundation.” By that, she means that domestic policies affect foreign policies; fair point. But in that section, she also says she stands for free trade. That’s a big positive; international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are immensely beneficial.

“Keeping our homeland secure.” In other words, she’ll continue the ‘war on terror,’ and she’ll continue Obama’s drone attacks on terrorist targets. She’s running for President, and can’t say anything else, but this is actually pretty depressing. Drone attacks are terrific recruiting tools for ISIS and other terrorist groups. What we’re doing doesn’t work; let’s try something else. Something more creative, perhaps.

“Make sure our military is on the cutting edge.” Again, I understand that she’s running for office, but this is pretty depressing. We spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined. One proposal that I think is worth looking at is service consolidation. Why does the Navy train pilots; why do we have four different branches of Special Forces? It’s inefficient, and unnecessarily expensive.

“Following a vision for America that is centered on our core ideals.” That one’s a little interesting. She identifies gender equality and LGBT rights as ‘core ideals.’ I think that’s great, but it’s a little weird as a foundation for foreign policy. But I’m generally supportive, if we could see some specifics on how that would work. We are, after all, still allies with Saudi Arabia.

“Defeating ISIS.” That entire section’s a mess, because ISIS is a mess, a horrible intractable problem. She does say she won’t deploy ground forces: good. The difficulty is that ISIS is a Sunni group, and the most effective fighters on the ground right now tend to be Shi’a: the Iraqi army, the Iranians. Or Kurdish. What’s needed is a major military commitment from a Sunni power in the region. Who? Don’t hold your breath on much Saudi involvement. Right now, we’re bombing, and training the feckless Iraqi army. That’s pretty much what’s possible.

“Holding China accountable.” China is an ally, but an ally intent on pursuing its own national interests. You know, like every nation on earth does. And China’s economy is struggling right now. Obviously we need to continue to negotiate on major questions: climate change, intellectual property agreements, free trade, human rights. But what can we offer the Chinese in exchange? With their stock market tanking, there may be some opportunities there.

“Standing up to Putin.” Right now, Russia’s economy is in freefall, and they’re bogged down in Ukraine. While she was SecState, she was effective in negotiating reducing oil sales from Russia with our European allies; I imagine she’ll keep doing that. Russian instability is certainly something that we need to keep an eye on.

From there, Clinton’s website spends a lot of time talking about building alliances. That’s great. That’s what an effective foreign policy does.

Generally, Clinton’s foreign policy strikes me as pragmatic, mostly realistic, but distinctly uncreative. I don’t really see any new ideas on her website, and I think she’s likely to continue Obama’s policies, for good and for ill. Give her a C+. She gets a grade that high mostly because of her support for the TPP and for the Iran deal. As I continue this exercise, that’s also a much better grade than anyone else running will receive.




The lily-white Oscars

The Oscar nominations just came out, and as usual, were greeted with cries of outrage from everyone whose favorite movie got dissed. Or (I live in Provo), outrage because Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn haven’t come to town. (They have come to Salt Lake, forty miles away, but I’m old, sick, and the weather’s been lousy). But also because of how few people of color received nominations.

Which complaints seem to me completely justified. Let’s grant, first, that determining the ‘best’ actor’s performance of the year is entirely subjective. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture, but for all of us that list had some real head-scratchers. I liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, and was thrilled to see it get an Oscar nomination, but my wife thought that was a ludicrous selection. Comedies and action movies are routinely ignored by Oscar, despite the fact that they are essentially the movies that keep the film industry alive financially. One big complaint about the Oscars is that they honor films no one has heard of or seen. Like Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn. Film is both an industry and an art form, and profitability and respect don’t always walk hand-in-hand.

Complaints about color-blind Oscars do seem justified this year. If there were movies about the African-American experience, by African-American filmmakers, that were exceptionally well-done, and that were ignored by the Academy, then African-Americans in the industry could legitimately feel ill done by. And if those same films had some nominal white participation which was, actually, honored by the Academy, then the exclusion of Black filmmakers can seem particularly egregious.

And that happened. Straight Oughta Compton was an outstanding film about N.W.A., well-reviewed, a terrific film about an exceptionally crucial group in the history of rap, crucial chroniclers of the African-American experience. It was directed by F. Gary Gray, an important African-American director, and the cast was essentially all Black. Its two principal screenwriters were both white, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. And Herman and Berloff were the only two Oscar nominees from that film. Creed was another excellent film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, another fine young Black director. It starred Michael B. Jordan, a wonderful young actor who gave a career-launching performance, after doing equally outstanding work in such films as Fruitvale Station and Red Tails. Again, it received one Oscar nomination; for Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting Actor.

Sorry, but that just seems like a deliberate snub, an intentional insult. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The Academy members who vote on these things are pretty much all Hollywood liberals, exactly the people who would be appalled and offended to be accused of racism. But they’re also, most of them, white. A recent study by the Los Angeles Times showed that of the 5, 765 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% were white, and 77% were male. Only 2% are Black, and fewer than that were Hispanic. And they’re old; average age 62.

I know people who get the mailers. They take the whole thing very seriously. But their votes are heavily influenced by sentiment and prejudice. The Creed vote makes sense. Creed was a Rocky movie; the final chapter, one presumes, in that endless saga. It’s about the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s kid. Rocky movies don’t win Oscars, not since the first Rocky did. But Sylvester Stallone is one of the giants of the industry. The political incorrectness of the second Rambo movie and jingoism of Rocky IV have long ago been forgiven. I can well imagine a kind of groundswell for his nomination. And while Creed was an outstanding movie, it is a Rocky movie.

And now Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have announced their intention to boycott the Oscars. George Clooney and Lupita Nyong’o have voiced similar criticisms. Chris Rock, this year’s host, is being pressured to step down. The story has legs.

So, for example, why wasn’t Will Smith nominated for Concussion? Big star, important, issue-oriented movie? Why not a nod? Well, who should he replace? Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl? Terrific actor, former winner, in an exceptionally well-made movie about transgender people? Okay, then, why not Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, or Michael Fassbinder for Jobs?  Except that Hollywood loves biopics. And you’ve got a film about a victim of McCarthyism, or a film about the founder of Microsoft. It’s not an easy call.

What makes this issue so fascinating is the way it illuminates the way racism actually functions in our society. Here you have a group of people who would rather die than be regarded as racists. And with the very best of intentions, they try to honor particularly outstanding members of their group. And they end up belittling and insulting their Black colleagues, quite inadvertently. But the outrage of the Hollywood Black community is real, and justified. Racism’s insidious that way.

Benghazi, and Michael Bay’s Thirteen Hours

Say the word ‘Benghazi,’ and watch the fur fly. If you’re a conservative, Benghazi is a national disgrace, proof of the ineffectual and feckless foreign policy of Barack Obama and the rank dishonesty of Hillary Clinton. If you’re a liberal, Benghazi is a national tragedy unnecessarily politicized and trivialized by a right wing desperate for some actual scandal they can use to attack this President, and deny the Presidency to the woman who served as his Secretary of State.

My task today is to tell you about a film about Benghazi, directed by, of all people, Michael Bay. A film I expected to loathe, and ended up respecting and being moved by. Yes, that Michael Bay, known for mindless and idiotic action films about transforming robots, weighing in on the most tendentious political scandal of our age. Of course, I thought, the movie was going to suck; that went without saying. I was seeing it so you wouldn’t have to. You’re so very welcome.

I’m a liberal, and a Hillary Clinton supporter. I’m also a film guy. And so when I tell you that Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is, for the most part, an honest, powerful and important film, and kind of interestingly revelatory, I suspect that most of you will worry that the old guy’s finally lost it. I knew perfectly well, going in, how I was supposed to react to it. But I make up my own mind. And yes, it’s  true that, to some extent, the film does perpetuate some conservative conspiracy theories. I just don’t think that’s very important.

Some background. September 11, 2012. Benghazi was the second largest city in Libya, a nation which, then, had recently, in 2011, been freed from the brutal and odious rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The United States supported the rebel faction that deposed Gaddafi, but the country began, almost immediately, to disintegrate, with some factions supporting the West, while others aligned with Isis, or Al Quada, or other Islamist extremists. The US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, supported Libyan independence, and the pro-Western factions in the country, and to show that support (and to meet with their leadership), he chose to spend a week in the mission compound in Benghazi, despite oft-expressed security concerns. And it was there that a large group of Libyan terrorists attacked.

In fact, there were two Benghazi attack centers. One was the consulate, where Stevens was in residence. The other was a CIA intelligence annex, tasked with monitoring Gaddafi-era weapons. Security at the consulate was provided by minimal personnel, plus a substantial Libyan militia presence (who turned out to be completely useless). Security at the CIA site, a mile away, was provided by civilian contractors, who reported to the CIA station chief. The contractors tried to save Stevens, but arrived too late. They returned to the CIA compound, followed by bad guys, and were attacked there. Of the four American casualties on that day, two were at the consulate, and two at the CIA facility. Most of the film is about the defense of the CIA compound.

The contractors were all former military Special forces. Those special forces are the heroes of this film. They all have beards, and cool tough guy names like Tig and Boon and Tanto and Oz. And the film’s protagonist, Jack (John Krasinski). They’re all married, all with families, and all with civilian jobs that they hate. And so, they take these security gigs, missing their families, but doing the job of warriors, because no one else will.

When terrorists attack the consulate, the contractors hear of it immediately, and want to drive to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his people. The CIA station chief, Bob, (played by David Costabile, a fine actor who often plays villains), refuses at first to allow it. The film therefore does support one conservative talking point: that the Ambassador could have been saved, but the guys who might have saved him were given a ‘stand-down order.’ An excellent article on the film and the event points out that the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation reached a different conclusion. (Still, given conflicting accounts, it’s hard to fault a screenwriter who chose to believe the one offering a stronger conflict).

The other major issue in the film has to do with their lack of air support. The contractors call repeatedly for some kind of military air support, which never comes. The reality, as found in both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee’s reports, is that the contractors didn’t receive air support because there weren’t any planes close by who could have provided it. So, in those two instances, the film does exactly what I was expecting it to do; support conservative talking points and conspiracy theories.

Here’s why, to me, none of that matters that much. Benghazi has not just become politicized, it’s also, perhaps inevitably, become trivialized. The current Republican talking points on the ‘scandal’ have to do with unimportant nonsense like who said what on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the attack. The current Democratic response is a resounding ‘Hillary did nothing wrong!’ What both of these responses ignore, and what the film illustrates, is the complete failure of US foreign policy in Libya, and probably throughout the Middle East.

The US strongly supported one side in what became a Libyan Civil War. As a result, today, as the film both illustrates and points out, Libya is a failed state. It’s a surreal, violent, horror show of a country, and the movie gets that right. We see it over and over, what a dreadful, screwed-up, violent place Libya has become.

There’s one scene early in the film, as three of the contractors are running, weapons ready, towards a firefight. And as they run down a Benghazi street, they pass a bar, where a whole crowd of Libyans are watching a soccer game. This kind of thing happens throughout; the most bizarre juxtapositions of the brutal and the mundane. Another guy has set up a TV set in his backyard, and is watching the same game, while bullets fly past his head. It’s a country where the most horrific violence is so routine that people don’t pay it any heed.

It’s also a country where you really can’t tell the bad guys and good guys apart. There are Libyan characters who act heroically throughout, and of course, Libyan terrorists, led by this one, unnamed, long-haired guy. At one point, a car drives past the compound, and one of the contractors can’t decide whether to open fire or not. The car then turns around, and drives off. Was he lost? Was it reconnaissance? They don’t know, and neither do we, watching the film.

Of course, today, as Libya continues to collapse, as its two main factions and seven sub-factions all vie for power, the main response of the Libyan people has been to flee. There are half a million Libyan refugees in camps across Lebanon and flooding Italy. We think of the refugee crisis as involving Syrians, but it’s every bit as much a Libyan problem.

In American politics today, ‘Benghazi’ is the perfect illustration of what it means to strain for a gnat and swallow a camel. Conservatives shriek about how long it took Obama to call the attack an act of terrorism, while liberals shout just as robustly that Hillary was blameless. But Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pursued a policy in Libya that could not have failed more catastrophically, with an unbelievable cost in lives lost and families scattered. And the reason conservatives haven’t called them on it, is because they fully supported the essence of that policy, still do, and are upset that Obama didn’t commit to it more fully. Libya has failed, and thousands of people died, and that fact gets ignored by politicians left and right.

But not, as it happens, by Michael Bay. And after the attacks fail, and the contractors head home, we see the main battlefield outside the compound, and the bodies laying there, and we see women, wearing burqas and weeping like their hearts are broken, going from body to body, mourning each one afresh. I honor Michael Bay for including that moment, and lingering on it, just as I honor him for capturing the nightmare landscape that modern Libya has become.

It’s not just a stupid action film. It’s a powerful film about the cost of war, on both sides. And it’s a film about how badly US foreign policy has failed that entire region.

There’s an early scene in the film where Ambassador Stevens talks to the contractors at the CIA compound. And he’s idealistic and inspirational, and we can see that he’s a decent, good, hard working man, who genuinely believes that Libya can transform, under US guidance, to become a safe, free, prosperous nation. And that possibility maybe did exist, briefly. And the contractors aren’t impressed. They’re veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan. They’ve served multiple tours in ‘nation-building’ missions abroad. And they’ve seen the results. It doesn’t work. And they’re going to end up having to shoot themselves out of the mess that kind of idealism creates.

Benghazi doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton lied and it doesn’t mean that Republicans hyperventilate over trivia. Benghazi is about an instance of horrible violence in a country that no longer exists, where violence has become routine. It’s about well-meaning idealism, left and right, and about the honest, superbly trained grunts who have to make policies work that have no chance of working. In short, it’s a tragedy. Made by Michael Bay. Watch it yourself. Make up your own mind.

A world that doesn’t exist

Watching last night’s Republican debate was a corrosive experience, depressing and infuriating. I didn’t watch it last night–there were basketball games to watch–but I did record it and watch it this morning. It’s not just the egos on display, not just the personal attacks, not just the usual politicians’ blather. I’m used to that. I usually think it’s pretty funny. It wasn’t until this morning when I read this article on that I put my finger on it. The Republican candidates were describing a world that doesn’t exist.

Of course, I understand that that many Republicans believe that the seven years of the Obama Presidency have reduced the United States to a dystopic nightmare hellscape. The Oscar nominations just came out, and Mad Max: Fury Road is up for Best Picture. My impression is, that’s what they think the US is now, a bleak desert where water is money and Charlize Theron only has one arm, and is pursued by a bad guy in a mask. I mean, I get that the candidates are trying to replace Obama; of course they need to make the case that they will do a better job than he has. But they sounded like a bunch of dopes last night.

Let’s start with the absolutely obvious: the US economy was in free-fall when President Obama took office and it isn’t anymore. That’s reality. Not even a point worth debating. We all remember 2008. In case we forgot, The Big Short is also up for Best Picture. I’ll grant that Presidents don’t have all that much power to grow or contract the economy, but this President did ask for an $832 billion stimulus, which created or saved 1.2 million jobs every year for five years, and which prevented the great recession from turning into The Great Depression: The Sequel. Was some of the stimulus money misspent? Of course it was. It still worked; not as well as it might have worked, because it was never big enough. But well enough.

We can argue over whether a neo-Keynesian stimulus is an effective way to jump-start an economy trapped in a demand-side recession (hint: yes, it is), but what we can’t argue with is the simple fact that right now, in 2016, the economy is doing pretty darned well. The US GDP is up nearly nine percent since the first quarter of 2008. The US has added more jobs than the rest of the advanced world combined in that period. The deficit has declined; if current trends continue, the next President will be in a position to pay down the national debt. Are there still economic problems in the US? Of course there are. Labor participation is a concern, as is income inequality. But the Republicans, last night, were saying things like ‘the United States cannot survive eight more years like the last eight.” That’s just so much fatuous claptrap.

The article looks at foreign policy, a major focus of last night’s debate. And again, the candidates kept describing things that are just not true.

“ISIS is stronger than ever, and poses an existential threat to the United States.”

ISIS has lost nearly half of the territory it once controlled, and much of its leadership. The San Bernandino terrorist event killed fourteen people. That’s a terrible tragedy. It’s also more or less the same number of kids killed annually in high school football games (12, last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by champagne corks (24 last year). It’s fewer than the number of people killed by blunt force trauma in incidents involving cows (20 last year). Falling off horses is a bigger threat to the American public than acts of domestic terrorism. Yes, ISIS is dangerous, and US foreign policy needs to continue to focus on reducing its power. Existential threat? Please.

“The recent capture of a Navy boat by Iran proves how bad the nuclear deal was.”

Okay, so a Navy boat ran out of gas and drifted into Iranian territorial waters. The 10 sailors aboard were captured by Iranian forces, and held for one day. Because of the diplomatic ties we established during the nuclear deal, we were able to retrieve them without further incident. Some of the photos the Iranians took were kind of embarrassing. That’s all. But, boy howdy, the Republican candidates couldn’t talk about it enough. See! Proof! Iran! Bad! They made themselves look ridiculous, but what is not ridiculous is this thought: if most of the Republicans running for President right now actually won, we would almost immediately find ourselves at war with Iran. For no legitimate reason.

Jeb Bush warned about China and Russia. “China, Russia [are] advancing their agenda at warp speed. And we pull back. As president of the united States I will be a commander-in-chief that have the back of the military. We will rebuild the military to make sure it is a solid force.”

Jeb! was supposed to be the smart one. Anyway, this is all nonsense. Russia is caught in a military quagmire in eastern Ukraine, and its economy is in freefall. Essentially, Russia right now is a gas station with an army; aside from selling carbon fuels, Russia has almost no industrial base. China’s biggest stock market keeps shutting down. China has some very hard choices to make, with unprofitable state-owned domestic industries that probably need to be shut down, at the risk of a major recession.

There is zero evidence that China poses a military threat to the US, though. Zero. In fact, China is a US trade partner and ally, a very good thing, because China is the one effective power on earth who can talk sense to Asia’s crazy nephew in North Korea. In the meantime, under Barack Obama, the US military continued to enjoy more funding than the next nine countries’ militaries on earth, combined. Can I also say that I enjoyed Ben Carson’s description of the dangers of an EMP attack. I’ve seen those movies too. Let’s also not forget how dangerous those aliens look in the previews for Independence Day II. Not sure a Macbook virus can slow ’em down this time!

What really worries me is not ‘American weakness under the feckless leadership of Barack Obama.’ They’re running for President; they have to say silly things, sometimes. I also have my differences with Obama’s foreign policy, but ‘weakening America’ doesn’t make the list. What really worries me is that this kind of alarmist hooey appeals to a significant percentage of the electorate. I know a lot of political talk is drivel. But it should, occasionally, involve something other than drivel; some sensible analysis of the actual state of our actual union.

At least, open a window and look around. You’ll see a country that’s doing pretty well. We’re still lucky that way, we Americans.