Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Mini-Biographies in Roberto Caro's The Power Broker

Robert Caro's seminal biography of Robert Moses, titled "The Power Broker", spans many decades and covers New York City's political life for most of the 20th Century. An interested reader will learn many things not only about Moses himself, but also about important forces and important figures in city, State, and national politics throughout that season. Mini-biographies of legendary figures such as Governor Al Smith, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and others can be found in this book; also, extensive descriptions of New York's good government movement, among others. In a series of posts we are going to cover these books-within-the book, which are very illuminating for any student of the history of New York City.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), Take II

(Here's Take I).

Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni) seemed to have it all. Great looks, women falling for him, a fiancée prepared to kill herself for him - he lead a glitzy lifestyle, being a reporter for a gossip magazine, but he could maintain the friendship and respect of intellectuals, along with praise for his literary talent. Yet all this would prove to be superficial. In one of cinema's classic scenes, near the film's end, Marcello and his fellow party-goers get to see a dead giant fish ashore. Its empty eyes mirrored the emptiness Marcello felt, the void in his soul, which he would try to fill with the lifestyle he was leading. The search for what is missing (most people, including our protagonist, seem not to know what it is) is reflected in a whole sequence, where a large number of pilgrims gather to witness some supposedly miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary which is, in fact, a scam perpetrated by two schooled small children.

Only once, during the whole movie, does Marcello realize that he knows what he is missing and that he has it in front of him: beauty and innocence, in the form of a girl serving him at a seaside restaurant, whom he sees in mid-movie. He calls her an angel and the viewer can see that, regardless of Marcello's overall spiritual beliefs, he does believe, at least in that moment, in angels and he almost worships her. He sees that girl again at the final scene and tries to communicate with her - but strong winds and a water basin that lies between them renders their communication impossible. It is evident: he has lost his chance with the angel.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Just another movie I watched recently. Not too much to say, a movie about gunslingers, seven of them, protecting a Mexican village from some local bandits, four of them getting killed. A discussion on what constitutes bravery, a lament on the lonely lives gunmen lead, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen star but their acting is nothing too special (I rather like Charles Bronson in this one). Enough action, not entirely believable. However, the scoring by Elmer Bernstein is legendary:

Thursday, September 09, 2010

High Noon (1952)

Duty, honor, bravery - these are attributes of the individual, only when enough individuals carry them, can they define a community or society as a whole, when peer pressure from a majority or a significant number of individuals forces the other society members if not to obtain them, at least to pay lip service to them or to act in accordance with them. Their moral value is very much increased, when individuals display them in the face of a society indifferent or even hostile to them. That is the story of Will Kane (portrayed by Gary Cooper, in what is perhaps his finest role), a marshal in a frontier town, and the story of the 1952 masterpiece High Noon. It is the day of his wedding to a Quacker (played by the lovely Grace Kelly) and the day he gets to resign his commission as marshal and go to another town to open a shop with his new bride: no more gunfights for him, and his wife (who lost a father and a brother to gun-fighting) feels very strongly about it. A new marshal is to come the next day and the town feels it will be safe for a few hours.

After the wedding the town learns that Frank Miller, a killer whom Kane had brought to justice and was originally sentenced to hang (his sentence was commuted to life and he was subsequently pardoned), and his gang of three are coming to town to exact revenge on Kane and take over the town, as they did before Kane's arrival (actually, the other members of his gang are already there and expecting Frank to arrive by the noon train), he decides, at first, to speedily leave the town with his new wife. But it is not long, before his sense of duty overcomes him, and he returns to town, with the intent of raising a posse and facing the Miller gang - he has a little more than an hour until noon to do that (clocks are displayed many times during the film, indicating how much time is left for Kane). His pacifist wife will have none of this and decides to leave with the noon train. One by one, all the townspeople Kane had counted on to assist him either avoid him, or refuse to help - even their wives cannot shame them into it by reminding them the good Kane did for the town. Just one person had initially volunteered and was deputized, only to return his star in the end, when he found out, that there would be no other members of the posse. As for Kane's regular deputy, jealousy and anger because Kane did not support him to become the new marshal leave him out of the fight. There are only two volunteers, who Kane rejects: the town drunk and a boy who claims to be 16 years old, when he actually is only 14. A subplot involves a Mexican former lover of both Frank Miller and Kane, who has hooked up with Kane's deputy, and has to leave, to avoid Miller's rage for leaving him for Kane. At some point she meets Kane's wife and tells her off for not standing by her man.

In the end Kane faces the Miller gang alone; unexpected help comes from his wife, who, upon hearing the first gunshots, leaves the train (which she had boarded) and goes back to town and even kills one of the brothers. Frank Miller captures her hostage, but somehow she momentarily manages to escape and leaves a little room for Kane to shoot and kill Miller.

An amazing scene follows: the town seemed to be empty during the fight - suddenly scores of people come out of every door, while the 14-year old kid, always looking up to Kane, obliges to get him his baggy carriage. Kane takes his tin star off his vest and throws it down, on the dirt, before leaving town with his wife.

Kane, as an individual, stands out in his community. He has made the town a place for families to live. The saloon owners despise him for that; so do the brothel operators. But those people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of his actions chicken out and want nothing to do with him. In a climactic scene, in the town's church, Kane is almost accused of provoking Frank Miller into returning back to town. But even after everyone in town refuses to help him, Kane feels bound by his duty and honor. He stays behind to fight for what he believes, even when his wife chooses to leave him, less than an hour after their wedding, rather than stay and see him get killed (though eventually, as we know, she has a change of heart). Although everyone around him displays cowardice, Kane's individual sense of duty and honor keeps him going.

The message of the film should be taken into the context of its time, i.e. the height of the McCarthy era. Many people involved were black-listed at the time and hence not credited with their contributions to the film; but the film displayed amazingly how an individual's core beliefs and values are of more significance than the prevailing societal or political norms.

Extra: Enjoy the title song: "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling)".

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

La Dolce Vita (1960)

I really did not know what to make of Federico Fellini's 1960 movie "La Dolce Vita". A stunning Marcello Mastroianni stars and the term "paparazzo" (plural: paparazzi) is derived from the name of the photographer, who works for Mastroianni's character in a gossip magazine. The film lacks a coherent narrative, but it seems to center on some days and nights in the life of Marcello (the protagonist's name), a celebrity gossip journalist who also seems to have (or have had) literary aspirations. What is evident, throughout the film, is that Marcello is probably not content with his life. Much as he seems to enjoy the limelight and some of the perks of his job (getting to hang around attractive and famous women), one can understand that he seeks some sense of fulfillment; he sees his life as materialistic, and is envious of an intellectual friend of his, who seems to live a more "spiritual" life than Marcello.

Marcello cheats on his fiancée, who in turn attempts suicide, desperate for his love and attention. There is an episode, in which they angrily break up and he kicks her out of his car, leaving her stranded on the road, only to return hours later and pick her up and apparently make up with her. At some other point, Marcello obtains the services of a prostitute for his visiting father, who enjoys the attention at first, but has a mild heart attack while in her room and leaves in embarrassment.

A significant section of the film is centered on the coverage of two children (apparently trained by con-men) who claim to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The scenes in that section are fascinating, in that they show how people react to such purported miracles, how they flock trying to get some miracle therapy for their diseases, persisting even during rainfall, how the two children, very obviously schooled, claim to see the visions at one place or another and how this ends in tragedy, as a small child is run over by the crowd which is running to another place, where one of the children says he saw the Madonna.

A turning point in the movie is when Marcello learns that his intellectual friend, Steiner, killed himself and his two children; it is up to Marcello to break the news to Steiner's widow, while many gossip-magazine photographers try to take her picture. This leads to Marcello indulging in ever more materialistic habits, participating in a party, which takes place in a villa, into which the party-goers have broken in. Marcello even suggests that everyone in the party has sex with everyone else, assigning each person their partner. This is not accepted, however, and the whole group goes out to the beach, where they see a giant fish that has been stranded on the beach or caught by the fishermen. The fish's giant, empty dead eyes are one of the iconic images of European cinema. Their emptiness, reflecting the emptiness of Marcello's life (which he failed to fill with his literary pursuits, the devotion to his job, his indulgence in materialistic habits or women, his feelings for his fiancée, and his attempt to "up his intellectual ante" with Steiner).

There is one character, in the whole movie, that probably encompasses the purity or the innocence, which Marcello seems to crave for: a young waitress, named Paola. He sees her at a seaside resort, and engages in conversation with her, calling her an angel; this is at about the middle of the movie. He gets to see her once again at the end, on the beach, after his failed attempt to incite an orgy and after seeing the giant fish - only now they are separated by a distance and some water, the wind is blowing and Marcello cannot make out what Paola is trying to tell him. A close-up of her face, watching Marcello go away (and, possibly forfeiting his shot at the purity he sought), ends the movie.

Let me just say that Mastroianni's acting is brilliant - and, of course, the music by Nino Rota is amazing. A film definitely worth watching.

Another Look at the Beatniks

The New York Review of Books runs a story on a photograph exhibition at the National Gallery of Arts in Washington, DC, titled: Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allan Ginsberg. The photographs, as the exhibition's title suggests, have been taken by Allen Ginsberg between 1953 and 1963. The article discusses how some of the Beatniks secured some financial comfort in their last years not by selling their poetry and prose or by giving lectures and talks, but rather by selling art - pictures and photos. Moreover, it is a look on some of the features of the so-called Beat generation.

It seems that the Beatniks were a small but cohesive group, which managed to leave its own, discernible mark in the conformity of the '50s and the early '60s. Sexual relations among the group's members probably strengthened its cohesion. They led a lifestyle quite contrary to the norms of that time with many excesses, many of them experimenting and getting addicted to drugs and one of them (Burroughs) even shot and killed his companion in a drunken William Tell game gone awry.

Their appeal to younger generations is based, to a significant extent, on their free, bohemian lifestyle. Their prose and poetry was also characterized by motion and fluidity and very often by rhythm, someone could even recognize rhythmical patterns similar to those of jazz music in their writings. Their seemingly care-free attitude and the disregard for the dire consequences of some of their actions is reflected in their poetry; so is a dark psyche, which rejects the societal rules and niceties imposed on them.

Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" is one of the typical works of the Beat Generation. This is how it begins:

      I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
      madness, starving hysterical naked, 
      dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn 
      looking for an angry fix, 
      angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly 
      connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, 
      who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat 
      up smoking in the supernatural darkness of 
      cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities 
      contemplating jazz, 
      who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and 
      saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated ...

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Art of War Propaganda Cartoons

When I was a kid, back at the time when the cartoons played on Greek TV were those produced by the Walt Disney or the Warner Brothers Studio and before the advance of the prevalent Japanese nonsense, I remember watching Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig taking on the Nazis or the Japanese. Being just a kid, I enjoyed the sight gags and all, but of course their propaganda value was lost on me. But now seems a good time to re-appreciate these efforts in the context of World War II and to enjoy them some more, their political incorrectness notwithstanding. Their humor is understandably crude, at least by peacetime standards.

Let's begin with a cartoon that, according to YouTube, was banned - it shows the Japanese being horrible at everything they do and does not even fail to mention what was considered a significant propaganda cue, by then, the defection of Rudolf Hess.

Here's Donald Duck going crazy in Nazi Germany - actually, it's just a nightmare describing life in a militaristic society - and, when he wakes up, he is assured to see the Statue of Liberty outside his window:

Duffy Duck is a commando - notice how the poor German soldier named Schulz is being treated by his superior officer (implying that the common German soldier really wants no part in the war) and called on by Hitler himself in the end:

And this is my own personal favorite: Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby contributing uniquely to the war effort (with many of the era's great singers auditioning):

The Candidate (1972)

It's now considered almost a classic: the movie, which portrays an idealist, played by Robert Redford, run a long-shot campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from California against a three-term incumbent Republican Senator. It's not exactly David versus Goliath, as Bill McKay, the character played by Redford, is a former Governor's son and wins, on the strength of his name alone, the Democratic primary. He initially enters the contest, feeling that he has no chance of winning, so he can just use the campaign as an opportunity to promote his platform; he forgoes any help from his father and, at some point, even refuses to employ a political operator of his father's. But, following his primary victory, it seems that he will be crushed, so he starts becoming more of a politician, mincing his words - and when it appears as if he might indeed have a chance at winning the Senate seat, his message becomes even more generalized, eventually being limited to a slogan - something like "Bill McKay for a better way".

Other than that, the political messages of both nominees give the impression that almost nothing has changed in the vocabulary or the priorities of liberals and conservatives (save for the Bill Clinton parenthesis), although at the time the film was shot, Roe v. Wade had not yet been decided, so abortion was still an election issue. McKay calling for more welfare, more government intervention, stricter environmental regulations, no more nuclear power plants; his Republican opponent praising the value of hard work and prayer. One can also enjoy how the incumbent always plays up his role, how aloof he is at first and finally agrees to a debate (when the numbers are catching up with him), and how the challenger loses his soul in the process (it is even implied that he has a mistress during the campaign), finally accepting his father's endorsement and assistance from his father's political machine. And, of course, the closing scene, where Bill McKay, by now the Senator-elect, asks his campaign manager: "What do we do now?".

Saturday, September 04, 2010

New Blog for Politics

My posts for politics and economics will be on my new Plain Politics blog from now on. I will continue posting here on matters of general interest, TV, books I read, etc. Check my post on illegal immigration.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mad Men Stories - Roger Sterling: a Tragedy in the Making

If there is a tragedy which is being overlooked by Mad Men commentators, that is the tragedy of Roger Sterling. If I were asked to bet on which key character would be committing suicide by the end of this season, my money would be Roger. Everyone is discussing how Don Draper's life is heading for disaster, but an epiphany of sorts (and some assistance by A.A. member Freddy Rumsen) could very easily be a plot device to bring him back to where he was. Draper still seems to have the talent and the goodwill and name recognition to work and sell his work to clients.

Sterling, on the other hand, not only lacks talent or drive, but is realizing it, too (but not able to come to terms with it). The first slap on his face came on the season 3 episode, in which the British owners of Sterling-Cooper presented a new chart for the company; his name wasn't even mentioned. He explained that he makes his job look so easy, that people don't realize how important it is. Then, on the third season's final episode, he admitted to Draper that he was acting as if though he had created his business when, in actuality, he had inherited it (and, it was noted, that the only reason he was included in the new firm was the Lucky Strike account). And then in this season - apart from the Ponds Cold Cream account, which he has to handle himself; even there he manages to get the client, a recovering alcoholic, drunk - he only brings trouble to the company, most pointedly with the Honda account. His childishness is alluded to many times over the series (he himself also considers his young wife to be childish), one can see that Bert Cooper is behaving to him like a father trying to persuade his young son not to be naughty, and Lane Pryce in the latest episode ("Waldorf Stories") even referred to him as a child while talking to Campbell. 

For his part, Sterling himself is trying very hard to justify - to himself, that is - his importance. He is writing his memoirs (for want of any meaningful activity) and he understands that there are only a few important things he would be able to say about his work. He wants to get the credit for what he considers his own ultimate coup for his previous company, discovering and hiring Don Draper (and he wants so badly recognition by Draper himself on that), but it seems that even his role in that is controversial at best. It seems that he thinks that he is running out of excuses for living - his look after Draper leaves his office with the Clio award at hand is that of a man understanding that the recognition he received by Draper was probably not genuinely felt, but only a matter of good manners or of old-times-sake camaraderie. John Slattery does an amazing job in portraying that look of a sense of uselessness trying to be concealed by reference to imaginary (perhaps) moments of true executive genius. Roger Sterling's jumping out of the window within the next few episodes seems very plausible - especially if something to the effect of Lucky Strike leaving the company comes to happen.

Social Security - It's More Than a Matter of Political Correctness

Gail Collins, in a New York Times Op-ed, lambasted Alan Simpson, a Republican and co-chairman of the President's deficit reduction commission, for referring to Social Security as "a milk cow with 310 million tits". This, says Collins, confirmed that Simpson is indeed sexist and bashes seniors constantly, as was claimed in an article on Huffington Post. She goes on to make some tongue-in-cheek proposals on what should be done to prevent Social Security from collapsing.

If the op-ed was only a matter of political correctness and the use of the word "tit", that wouldn't matter too much (if you want to hear the word in a hilarious context, check this out until its end!); but the issue is that, once again, opinion makers pamper to senior citizens' wishes and defend their entitlements without so much as recognizing that an actual problem for the financing of Social Security exists. Such shortsightedness is appalling, especially for those of us who will bear that burden. An overhaul of Social Security is necessary and, surprisingly enough, several European countries are setting the example. They have introduced a two- or three- pillar pension system differentiating between the kinds of entitlements for people after their retirement. Typically the first pillar is a set amount handed out to every person above a certain age, independent of any contribution, enough to provide for subsistence. The second pillar is based on the accrued contributions of the retired person and is either somewhat proportional to them or is actually taken from the pooled contributions (defined contribution system - as is the case in Chile). The first two pillars are either state-administered or very heavily regulated. A third pillar, optional and complementary to the first and second, is operated by the market and private insurance companies and, in most cases, the insurance premiums are tax-deductible. Moreover, 

This trifurcation leads to a diversification of the dangers for the pensioners and clarifies the state's role - it provides a guaranteed minimum wage after a certain age, guarantees that the contributions of the individual pay off and provides a motive for individuals to complement their public pension with a private one. Failing to reform the monolithic Social Security system by pandering to the seniors (who allegedly have greater voting power) will surely lead to its collapse.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Blogging Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities": the Need for Diversity in Usage and How to Achieve it

A city or a part of a city works well, according to Jacobs, when there is presence of people - inhabitants, workers, visitors, tourists - during the whole day and evening. She maintains that, in order to obtain such an effect, cities and parts of cities (districts, neighborhoods, etc.) must be diverse - diverse in usages, that is. It is very easy to contemplate that in an area, where people both live and work (not necessarily the same people, of course), people are present, in the streets, the whole time: people going to and from work, parents taking their children out for a stroll, people living there, enjoying their walk after work, people going out to dine or enjoy themselves in some other fashion.

This means that the city and its streets in particular are monitored by the city's dwellers at all hours - and also that people get many more chances to meet each other, to bump into each other, to discover people with similar interests or desires. Jacobs claims that there are four generators of such diversity: mixed primary uses, small blocks, old buildings, and concentration. Let me just write a few words for the first three generators of diversity - I will deal with the need for concentration on my next post on the book.

Mixed primary uses means that a part of a city cannot be solely a business district or an art center or residential. It needs to mix up at least two primary usages, in order for people to be frequenting it all day. This, in turn, means that many secondary uses can be developed, since there are many businesses that can thrive on a clientele present not only for a couple of hours a day (as is the case in business districts, for example), but can count on customers coming in any time of the day. Restaurants and cafes are a typical example of businesses that cannot be sustainable if they work for only two to three hours a day - their overhead, then, is too much for them to handle, they have to raise prices, which means they lose clients and, inevitably, they are forced to close. Conversely, if they can be sustained and be open all through the day, they can support new businesses or new residences, since the workers or the dwellers can count on these businesses for much of the coverage of their needs. They can also attract outsiders, which is of course very good for the local economy, leading to the opportunity for new businesses, and so on.

Small blocks are another generator for diversity, in that they allow many small streets to form and the people living in them get more opportunities to mingle and to follow different paths everyday to their work or to their bus stop. These small streets are also places for small businesses to appear and to assist in mixed primary or secondary uses, leading to the results just mentioned. If, on the other hand, blocks are large, people are reduced to taking one particular route for their everyday walks or strolls or to go to their work. Moreover, it is much more difficult for small businesses to develop, since the distances between a point on the opposite site of the block and the small business is so big, as to discourage potential customers from making the trip (as it often is) from their houses to that business, be it a restaurant, a barber shop, a small gallery, or whatever. Small neighborhood businesses in residential areas bring, of course, the mixed use Jacobs considers important to generate diversity. Jacobs attributes the development of Greenwich Village to the East (to what today is known as the East Village - remember, this book was published in 1961) and not to Chelsea, which was up to some point comparable to Greenwich Village in terms of its population's incomes, to the difference between the large blocks of Chelsea and the small ones in Eastern Village.

Old buildings or, rather, a mix of old and new buildings, seems at first glance an unlikely generator of positive diversity. However, one can understand that cheap buildings, cheap land in general, is required for many an upstart company, which cannot afford to pay expensive rents or buy a studio, an apartment or a store at a high price. Newer and more expensive buildings can be used by established businesses and the osmosis between small and big, upstart and established, proves mutually beneficial in almost all cases.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The New York Times on David and Charles Koch and the Tea Party Movement - Oh, the Condescension!

Perhaps the most fundamental question defining the political divide between the left and the right today is as straightforward as can be: who ought to decide how money is to be spent - the people who earn it or someone else, in the name of the community, society, the common good, the common interest, etc.?

Since states were organized and money was invented, people had always forfeited a part of their earnings to their governments, in the form of taxes, in the understanding that such taxes would be used for financing a state machine, which would provide goods mostly related to its monopoly of legal force: an army for external defense, a police force for internal security, a system of courts for the enforcement of contracts. In modern states this contract was slightly modified, to include certain cases, in which collective or state action was deemed to be preferable to individual action in order to bring about a result desirable to society as a whole, like universal literacy (and later education), some works of infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc., which were initially outside the confinements of private property), etc. But this arrangement, reasonable at first, gave birth to an ever-increasing bureaucracy and the temptations, in a democratic system of government, for opposing political fractions to use the state mechanism for political favors to the electorate - this called for a larger realm of state action which, in turn, needed its own bureaucracy and needed money to work. And this, of course, meant more taxes. 

Moreover, after FDR took over during the Depression, a new role for the government emerged: give money away, create public projects, if only to stimulate demand. And this, of course, meant even more taxes. And today an ever increasing large part of the public sector purportedly serves needs, which would be much better served by the market - which means that people's incomes (and transactions and hereditary transfers and so on) are taxed for some other people, either elected or, in most cases, unelected, to decide where they should be spent, such decisions no longer limited to the basic functions of the state or even to providing goods and services which would be better (or almost as well) provided by the state than the market.

This would inevitably lead to reaction by people who think that the government, in taxing and spending, decreases the value of their work or their entrepreneurship in order to feed the special interests which have inevitably sprung out of this process. This reaction has taken the forms of grassroots organizations, most prominent of which today is the (collectively so named) Tea Party. And these organizations may be financed by wealthy people, who lose a lot more money to taxation than ordinary Americans.

According to an Op-ed by Frank Rich in the New York Times, these Tea Partiers are stupid. How can they not understand that their actions only help to serve the super-rich? How can they connect themselves with what, I guess, are supposed to be their class adversaries? And how can they accept contributions from such evil people, such as the Koch brothers?

Because the Koch brothers are evil, as so thoroughly established by a New Yorker article. Yes, very much so. They want to pay less taxes, instead they want to spend their money on hypocritical donations to the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts or, even worse, to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Not to mention that their father was afraid of Communist infiltration back in 1963 (when such an event was so unfeasible! - see the Guillaume Affair in 1973-1974), that David Koch was the Vice-Presidential Nominee of the extremist Libertarian Party and they both helped with the founding of the reactionary Cato Institute (where the person who is most responsible for turning me into a reactionary, Professor Bradley A. Smith, has outrageously defended actual free speech in campaigns). And, what's more, they give money to candidates or political causes they support!

After mentioning all these evil deeds and tendencies, Rich goes on with some ramblings about Murdoch (guilt by association for the Koch brothers?), but not before he has pointed out the great contradiction in these simple-minded Tea Partiers' positions: they want to have a government that does not run a deficit, and at the same time they "have no objection to running up trillions in red ink tax cuts to corporations and the superrich" (Tea Partiers, apparently because of the mind control exercised over them by the Kochs, do not realize that part of a rich person's earnings, if in excess of a certain amount, becomes ipso jure property of the government). So, it once again comes down to the question asked in the beginning of this post: should the corporations and the superrich (sic - although last time I checked the non-superrich were not exempt from taxation) decide where to spend their money, or should this decision be left to the benevolent governmental bureaucracy? In other words, not giving the government money leaves it with (oh, the horror!) less money to spend in pursuit of its noble causes, of which the stimulation of the economy is once again the premier.

So the Koch brothers want less taxes - but, at the same time, they donate unheard-of sums of money to causes they believe in. Not only think-tanks and candidates, but to foundations for culture or for battling cancer. Why, if they purport to be so generous, do they not give the money to the government? My reactionary response (or rather hypothesis) is this: they want their money to go where they feel that it will have a positive impact on society, on others. They do not want the money to go to a grant for a search of the mating habits of snails in Utah, so that the government can both do political favors with other people's money and claim, at the same time, that it is energetic in bringing the economy back to its feet. I will also dare to guess that the Tea Partiers are privy to such intentions and do not in any way feel manipulated by the evil, seductive, and so patently hypocritical David and Charles Koch.

Enough With the Stimulus Already!

Yet another op-ed piece (by a member of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, no less!) at the New York Times calls for more money to be poured from the government to the economy to stimulate it. The same false analogies are drawn with the Great Depression and the need to boost demand and create new jobs is invoked. But how cannot all these people, trained in the '70s, when demand-side economics was the undisputed orthodoxy, see that any sort of artificial boost to demand cannot go on for long? Or that an ever-increasing deficit cannot be sustainable?

Paul Volcker, who is also an advisor to the current President, kept interest rates very high in the first couple of years of President Reagan's administration, in order to keep the money flow low and combat inflation. For some time unemployment was skyrocketing - and the economy actually contracted. 1982 and 1983 were dark years for many people. And the change which came about in mid-to late 1983 and was sustained until 2000, essentially, was such, that in the 1984 presidential campaign Reagan could plausibly claim that it was morning again in America.

What was the effect of Volcker's policies? That with money supply and demand kept low, the market indicated what the real needs of the consumers were. It drove, essentially, businesses to sound investments. Moreover, the businesses that survived the contraction proved that they had sound financial footing. They could be trusted to extend credit to by banks and other businesses, they were trustworthy. It became much easier to expand one's business, hence to create more jobs; since these jobs were in companies that were creditworthy, any temporarily adverse financial climate would not jeopardize most of them. Employees knew that they could count on their employer continuing to do business - and that provided them essentially much more job security than any regulation or state intervention. Workers could plan for the future, buy a house on a mortgage (which could be repaid) and actually increase demand, which is in essence what the prevailing economists of the '70s wanted to accomplish through shortcuts.

What happens if there is another stimulus package? Money will be spent on things (I can't even call them goods or services) that nobody needs - which only the government, in its "wisdom", considers not important, but somehow defensible as having some sort of usage. Ms. Tyson, in the op-ed mentioned above, proposes that the money be spent on infrastructure (railroads, highways, etc.). There is something the government could actually do to improve infrastructure, without spending its own (= i.e. the taxpayers', lest we forget that) money: seek private financing in these projects - issue bonds, to be repaid by the people using the infrastructure, by tolls or by a percentage of the tickets in the new railways, which might be constructed (when talking about the federal government, this applies only to interstate highways or railroads - otherwise, it is for the States themselves). The global market will assess the feasibility of these projects on its own and if the (state or federal) government can attract capital and the bond issue is covered, so much the better. If the federal government insists on another stimulus package, then once again a match for pork between Senators and Representatives will ensue, businesses or academics or other individuals with political connections will usurp the taxpayers' money and the artificial increase in demand will only be sustainable, after an initial hike, by another stimulus package.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cheering Up II: Mozart!

Music can be very uplifting. Mozart has, of course, composed a lot of masterpieces. Here are some particularly cheerful works or parts of his works:

Common choices:

Personal choices:
First choice (of course!) - 4th part from Symphony No. 41 ("Jupiter")

These are by no means all of my favorite Mozart compositions (there are too many of these!), but the ones I turn to when I need to cheer up. Maybe they will cheer you up too!

It Can Happen in Democracies Too, or How a Political Caste Can Insulate Itself from the Electorate

The defining feature of a representative/ parliamentary democracy is the regular change of government as mandated by an informed electorate. Flow of information, then, is crucial in maintaining a democracy, since it is crucial for the government to actually be answerable to the electorate. Conversely, a political caste which is self-serving and self-perpetuating will inevitably attempt to curb that flow of information, in order to prevent any new players in the political scene to appeal directly to the people. Should that  endeavor succeed, a closed ruling - political class is formed, open only to those select few who pose no real danger to the establishment and who, in fact, submit to it and can only aspire to rise through its ranks. The good of the country or voter intent is not even an afterthought. For anyone wishing to serve their country through politics, the dilemma becomes: join us, against your better judgment or even your conscience, or stay in the political wilderness, your opinions or proposals or positions forever remaining in the sidelines, where nobody will ever hear of them or you, much less consider voting for you.

Well, that is exactly what has happened in Greece. Under the pretext (typical!) of preventing undue influence of money in political campaigns, Greek election law puts caps on how much money a candidate or a political party can spend; and on how much a candidate or a political party can receive as campaign contribution from an individual. But the legislation does not stop there: it even places limits on how many times, during election season, a candidate may appear on the TV or in the radio - and even (in the case of municipal elections) goes on to regulate that a candidate for mayor may only make one appearance in a website within the four months preceding the election (election dates for local elections are fixed). And, even more than that, the limitations during election season for national or European elections vary, in accordance with the votes each party received in the previous elections - the law provides that political parties are not allowed to buy airtime during election season; that airtime is provided free of charge by the TV and radio channels; and that the Minister of Interior shall allot the time between the political parties on TV according to the standard of relative equality and that no political party can have more airtime than that, which is provided for by the ministerial decision. "Relative equality" means that the Minister should allot more time to established parties and much less to newly-formed parties, as has been the case in all elections conducted under this legislation (since 2002). And, remember, smaller parties are not even allowed to buy, on their own, time to match the airtime alloted to the first party by the ministerial decision. That means, of course, that the electorate does not even get to know the existence of smaller or newly-formed parties. This is not just curbing the flow of information, it's practically killing it.

Did you say anything about how that would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment, had the elections been held in the United States? Well, the Greek Constitution, as amended by the Parliament in 2001 (the same parliament that voted the 2002 legislation) provides, in art. 29 § 2, that the law may prohibit certain types of pre-electoral promotion. It seems that the political caste has managed to take such prohibitions even outside the scope of judicial review (checks and balances in Greece? Ha, ha!). That results in a political class, completely insulated from the electorate, controlling the country and giving away jobs to its cronies; a political caste completely cut off from society and lacking in elementary decency, since joining it requires throwing one's decency completely away. Of course, meritocracy in a system like this would only sound as a joke.*

This political caste is currently collapsing under its own ineptitude and corruption. Greek economy has been driven into chaos, mainly because of the political caste's handling out various entitlements to an inefficient bureaucracy and a cabal of well-connected public procurers. Its natural conclusion seems to be its eradication, when Greece defaults on its debts, since they will no longer have a public purse to control and will no longer be able to pay pensions and civil servants' salaries, or anyone else for that matter. Such failure, in a country, where 60% of the economy is either directly controlled by the State sector or directly related to it, will undoubtedly provide the sort of information, that no legislative means would be able to block: that the ruling political class has made us all broke.

* A case is pending before the Council of State in Greece, challenging the constitutionality of the aforementioned provisions; a decision is expected any day.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Cheering Up I: British Comedy

Someone, whose twitter account I am following, asked her followers what song would cheer her up. Several responses came, love songs, cheerful songs, but there was a very conspicuous absence: the song which concluded the Monty Python movie "The Life of Brian". Of course, I am referring to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". Then I thought how almost each separate scene of that movie is so incredibly hilarious, that just watching one scene makes my day. Oh, the scenes! The stoning scene, the balcony scene, what have the Romans done for us?, the grammar teaching scene, Stan wanting to have a baby, the calling for action, the crack suicide squad, the persecution of the hermit - and so many others. And after that I came to realize how much I enjoyed the Monty Pythons (like their Ministry of Silly Walks and Philosophy Football sketches from their Flying Circus) and British humor in general. 

Who can hold back a laugh at most of the Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister scenes (here's just one of my favorites - just wait for the final retort)? Or Blackadder? I even enjoy watching such old series, as Jeeves and Wooster; I particularly like their jazzy intro or Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry singing Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher". Of course, there are so many other classics: Faulty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, etc.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Blogging Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities": The Uses of City Neighborhoods

Jacobs continues where she left off: having discussed the role of the streets and of neighborhood parks, she goes on about the role of the neighborhood itself as a self-governing (albeit not necessarily in a formal sense) body; this, of course, entails defining what constitutes a neighborhood. Surprisingly enough, Jacobs proposes that we think of city neighborhoods in three levels: a small neighborhood, centered around a street, a larger district, distinct within a city, and a whole city by itself.

This seeming contradiction is explained very well if one understands how cities function as a whole, as opposed to just being the sum of self-contained smaller units (neighborhoods or districts): one of the main properties of an urban center is that people can find, within the whole city, a sizable number of other people sharing their own interests or offering the specialized services (or even goods) they might desire. The potential for such specialization requires a significant concentration of people-potential customers, that only a city can offer. Moreover, there are governmental functions (such as policing, for example), that, most of the time, belong to the authority of the city government - which, however, cannot work properly if it is cut off from the actual neighborhoods. An important entity, then, to which all city dwellers look up, is the city itself.

On the other hand, street neighborhoods, i.e. neighborhoods on the smallest scale, cannot be defined solely through geographical borders and isolated (and insulated) from one another; if so, the whole sense of a city is lost for their inhabitants. They come about naturally, usually around a center which might either be a park or a church or a store, which many of the neighborhood's people frequent, and through the neighbors' interaction many parallel webs of relationships evolve, which result in the existence of a neighborhood. But small neighborhoods like that have little or no political clout; in the rare instances they seem to have more of an impact, that is due to some important person or institution (such as a college campus) living or situated in the neighborhood and, in that case, the neighborhood can only be dependent on the particular person's or institution's whims.

That is why Jacobs argues for another neighborhood level, the district, which can be understood as a number of street neighborhoods, in geographical proximity, which share more or less common problems - and usually has some political representation, in the form of electing a representative to the City Council. The chapter on the uses of city neighborhoods is filled with examples of organizations and mobilizations, mostly at the district level, which were effective in challenging decisions made at a central level. Moreover, organizations at the district level can be very helpful in informing central municipal authorities on the issues of the respective districts, serving as an intermediary between the Mayor or the Police Commissioner and the street neighborhood.

Again, in all three levels of neighborhoods, Jacobs stresses the various relationships that emerge from the daily interaction of the neighbors or of people of common interests or goals within a district or a city. She notes that it does take time for these relationships to be built and to become strong. She also observes that in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods such ties might be developed faster, but at the expense (crucially) of interaction with the bordering neighborhoods, which would form a strong network within a district. Apart from that, ethnical homogeneity would also mean the exclusion of newcomers not belonging to the dominant ethnic group and its breach would result in massive changes, having an indirect effect of making the neighborhood undesirable to those who had settled in because of its ethnic composition. Such changes, then, have an adverse effect on the process of building overlapping relationships and networks (which require time to begin anew) and, consequently, on the effectiveness of the neighborhood as such.

This chapter ends the first part of the book, titled "The Peculiar Nature of Cities". In sum, Jacobs argues that cities have their own properties which are markedly different than those of suburbs and should be treated as whole, diverse entities, rather than the accumulation of small, autonomous communities, particularly since the diversity and specialization in services or jobs afforded to city dwellers is their main motive for living in a city in the first place.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blogging Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities": Neighborhood Parks

General introduction - disclaimer: I am involved with an independent run for the municipal elections in Athens, due next November. The group I support is called "Orange" and is led by Mr. Tasos Avrantinis, a very dear and able friend. Jane Jacobs' seminal book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", published as far back as 1961, contains observations which would be relevant even in today's Athens, since many of the problems facing the American cities of that period have causes and explanations common to most large metropolitan areas. Although Jacobs was not an architect or a city planner by trade (she was a journalist and actively opposed many of "master planner" Robert Moses' plans in New York City), her observations are very astute and her arguments are very convincing. I am beginning a series of posts, in which I intend to write down the basic points of her book's chapters, as I am reading them.

Neighborhood parks - introduction: Although the first specialized chapters in the book deal with the functions of sidewalks, my first post will be on the chapter addressing neighborhood parks. There is a very specific reason for this: a whole airport in Hellenicon, to the South of Athens, has closed. Its whole area (belonging to the Greek government) is double to that of Central Park in New York City. There are many voices calling for the establishment, in this area, of the largest municipal park in Europe. This concept reeks megalomania, of course, and is in no way sustainable (all the more so, given Greece's precarious current financial situation). 

Jacobs spends a very large part of her book contradicting the accepted wisdom of most city planners on many issues, the role of neighborhood parks among them. She uses a lot of empirical evidence to back her claims (much of which we can relate to with our own experiences half a century later), which are also supported by compelling arguments of reason. Her central thesis is that parks do not operate independently of their surroundings and do not add value to them by themselves. In fact, it is rather the other way round. And a prominent observation she makes is that with parks, most of the time, it's either very good or very bad, no middle ground. Parks can either be an extension of the neighborhood, in which case the flourish, or they can be cut off from it, in which case they become decrepit.

She gives many examples of parks which are filled with people all the time and contrasts them to many dilapidated parks, including many which had been planned and were expected to bring great value to their neighborhood. On general, it seems that parks, which are situated next to mixed-usage areas fare much better than parks situated in exclusively residential areas; parks situated near business areas fare even worse. The main reason for this is that, in mixed-usage areas, there are people at all times of day walk or wonder on the park. People going to work, people coming to work, mothers and children in the morning, mothers and children in the afternoon, people taking a lunch break from work, etc. 

Another very important aspect of parks, often overlooked in Greece (where we go to great pains to show how much green and trees we can plant in as little space as possible) is that the inside of the parks should be visible from the surrounding streets. That way there will be no dark parts, with the informal supervision afforded by the passers-by and the neighbors (which is the focus of one of the chapters on the role of sidewalks) available at all times. That is one of the reasons that most successful parks are rather small ones. Moreover, Jacobs proposes that general-themed parks should have variety in their settings and a center, which would be the area carrying the most activity in the parks. Their relationship to the sun is also important: the sun must, ideally, not be cut off from the park by very tall surrounding buildings.

Experience has proved that parks, which are not suitable for general, everyday use, can function as specialized parks with very good effect (swimming pools and skating rinks were hits in New York City, theaters and concert venues also). Jacobs also mentions parks, whose only function is to provide a visual relief for passers-by. Her examples are taken from the very small parks in San Francisco which have been set on corners created by the convergence of the streets.

I must also not fail to mention that Jacobs dispels the myth, that parks reduce pollution. She notes that it takes almost a small park to offset the carbon-dioxide emissions of four persons. If parks are designed to be too big, resulting in the metropolitan area widening up and the use of the automobile being required (as is the situation in Los Angeles), the effect on the environment is rather adverse.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Learning from the "tube"?

Well, television was always regarded in "educated circles" here in Greece as a "silly box", making its own viewers sillier. This might explain in part an article by Ms. Marianna Tziantzi in the Greek edition of the Athens daily "Kathimerini", presenting the whole Mad Men phaenomenon to her readers, particularly the interest displayed by viewers in the show's historical accuracy and the many fora and on-line conversations (giving this example from the Wall Street Journal), in which viewers try to point out any inaccuracies in the way people speak and behave in the series (embarrassing the show's creator Matthew Weiner into admitting that he was regretting having a character utter the phrase "the medium is the message" four years before Marshall McLuhan famously coined it). Ms. Tziantzi goes on to state that research like that would be seen as a complete waste of time in Greece. Of course, this is due to the fact that TV is in no way seen as an art form and, even more than that, it is inconceivable in Greece that anything other than serious documentaries might have more than light entertainment value, much less any educational scope.

Luckily, that is not the case in the States. Mad Men has propelled a discussion on the '60s - a period where norms of behavior changed, race relations reached a crucial point, gender relations took a new dynamic, and the prevalent conformity of the '50s (symbolizing authority as far as the youths in the U.S.A. and Europe, as well, were concerned) was challenged. The painstaking period research by the show's creators allows for the series to provide viewers with a solid background for the discussion which, eventually, leads to their own soul-searching.

Even in the past, TV series would foreshadow or even provoke significant developments in society as a whole. Star Trek, in its seeming naiveté, was almost an allegory, a conversation on the relationship between different cultures, different civilizations, and the extent to which third parties should not intervene, even in cases, in which their (i.e. the potential interveners) core values are breached - a conversation that is definitely relevant today. Plus, Star Trek had the audacity to display the first interracial kiss on television.

Other series took head-on prevailing issues of their days. That "All in the Family" or "The Cosby Show" were the most popular TV series in their time is telling (I was very fortunate in that these shows were aired on Greek television). They were shows, which a whole family could watch together, and which could very well spur a conversation between parents and their children. They took on their head issues like bigotry, personal, family and racial relations, responsibility (by kids, teens, and adults alike), etc.

This is not to underestimate the sheer artistic value of some TV series, particularly those produced in the new millennium's first decade (the "aught's") - "The Sopranos" have been rightly praised, but for me another HBO show stands out even more prominently: I am referring, of course, to "The Wire". In this excellent series, set in Baltimore, MD., one can really find the elements of a Greek tragedy (or, rather, many Greek tragedies at the same time). Realistic characters, with traits a viewer would recognize in herself/ himself or her/ his friends, neighbors, acquaintances; functional and dysfunctional interpersonal and group relationships corresponding to actual relationships in real life; stories of personal triumph or demise; characters the viewer can sympathize with, can adore, be loyal to, indifferent to, or loathe; a mother not hesitating to send her son to deal drugs, so she can keep up her lifestyle; a gang leader wannabe, not hesitating to sleep with an incarcerated comrade's girlfriend, later to order his execution in jail; hubris and sometimes vindication; an acute description of politics, or the press, or schools in parts of America; and a world where there are good guys who are not 100% perfect, bad guys who are not 100% despicable (although moral relativism is absent: there are good guys and bad guys), with people trying to do their best under adverse circumstances and displaying a strong sense of honor (in both cases this includes gang members), where the "good guys" do not always win, where there cannot be a final resolution.

So, yes, there are many things we can learn from TV and, notwithstanding the pronouncements of our self-appointed cultural elite here in Greece (which have remained unchanged since the early '70s, when TV started to become popular), I will try to seek them.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I learned from Tony Judt's "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945"

Recently, I finished reading Tony Judt's "Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945", and I would like to share some of my impressions of this terrific book, which I think anyone even remotely interested in history would enjoy very much.

Let me begin by saying that it is a very informative book. While it's not written to be read only by history buffs, some elementary knowledge of European history is required to follow it; nevertheless, even well informed readers will learn many new things by reading the book. Moreover, the book does an excellent job of putting every single fact it describes into context, so the reader understands its significance to the way things turned out the way they did, both the hows and the whys. I, for one, was surprised to find out how much, immediately after the end of World War II and for some years on, the fear of a rearmed Germany, which would display the same territorial ambitions as the Third Reich, exceeded even the fear of the mighty Soviet military machine in Europe - and how it lead to coal, one of Germany's most important assets, being put under an international authority, the High Authority of the European Coal and Steel Community, the harbinger of the European Economic Community that would evolve to be the European Union; that, in fact, fear lay among the seeds of European integration even more so than ideals of co-operation among peoples or the desire for an enlarged common market.

The descriptions in the book, particularly those of a devastated Europe in the aftermath of the war, are very realistic, they bring to mind scenes from movies of the Italian neo-realist cinema in their detail and realism. Another of the author's talents is his ability to switch from a broad approach to very detailed views of periods, countries, etc., in a way consistent with his whole narrative. The author might take us, for example, from a general view of the influence of the Catholic Church in politics throughout Europe (including Poland) to the specific role the Catholic Church played in Franco's Spain, and the reader will enjoy the transition. The book, then, is broad in its scope, but detailed enough, without becoming tiresome, for the reader to have gained a complete picture of the forces that led Europe to where it is today.

For my part, I learned a lot from Judt's description of the communist States of Eastern Europe. Judt narrates, in fascinating detail, how the Soviet Union managed to install puppet regimes in the lands it had conquered during the War, although communist sympathies among the local population were minimal; and how the leaderships of these regimes were always men (never women) of no more than average intelligence, with a bureaucratic set of mind and their ability to convey orders from Moscow being their most valuable asset. Each time someone more intelligent would rise to the top in a communist party, signs of independence would invariably lead to either an intra-party putsch or, worse, to the intervention of the Red Army (the role show trials played in the solidification of such regimes and the riddance of party leaders of Jewish descent is also accounted for - a notable exception was Poland in 1956, where the local party chiefs, primarily Władysław Gomułka, were able to convince the Soviets that a number of reforms they undertook would pose no threat to the stability of the Warsaw pact - and Moscow's relative tolerance in the matter made many people in Hungary believe that they could undertake similar reforms, leading to the intervention of the Red Army later that year). The fall of these regimes, precipitated by their inefficiency, which no propaganda machine could hide from their citizens, the restlessness such inefficiency caused and some small liberties granted to the population, in order to appease them, is another outstanding part in the book.

Finally, I should mention that one of the underlying themes of the book is the search for (or even the existence of) a common European identity, especially after the enlargement of the European Union in 2005 (the year the book was published) and the rejection of the european Constitutional Treaty by electorates in France and the Netherlands. Although English has become the lingua franca of today's Europe (to the extent that it is acceptable for a Flemish and a Walloon in Belgium to converse in English, rather than offend one another by not using their respective languages), a European identity seems to be being carved more in juxtaposition to the United States of America, rather than anything else. The welfare state (although Judt does recognize its limitations and the need for its overhaul) is a distinctly European, as opposed to American, feature. Even more important is the role of the State in matters of culture. European States pride themselves in the many state-run orchestras, theaters, cinema foundations, etc. they have, whereas in America art is left to the private sector (as it should, at least in this blogger's opinion); and, ironically enough, one of the central functions of the various European countries in their own cultural affairs is to prevent their cultural landscape from being americanized. And, last but not least, the Iraq war is mentioned as an example of the traditional powers of European integration (mainly France and Germany) chiding the countries that participated in the so-called "coalition of the willing" (Great Britain, France, the Czech Republic, etc.) as taking an un-European stance.

P.S. Tony Judt passed away a couple of weeks ago. He had suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease); he was active until the very end. He wrote down experiences of his illness, and essays on his life, among others, for the New York Review of Books. Many of these essays are still available online.