Grumpy Old Men

After thirty years in Southern California, and almost twenty years here in the heart of Hollywood, it has become painfully obvious that no one knows a damned thing about marketing, even if they make obscene amounts of money churning out their movies and television shows. The sit-coms are all pretty much alike, variations on what came before – just add a gay character or two, and of course Zooey Deschanel is Lucille Ball, updated as a neurotic pixie. Subversive series – All in the Family or The Simpsons or whatever – are the exception, the exception that proves the rule. The new doesn’t usually sell. People don’t want to be surprised. Game shows like Jeopardy last for decades and the reality shows all blend together after a while – the Real Housewives of Altoona end up playing Survivor on the Jersey Shore. American Idol and Dancing with the Stars begat their many knock-offs so you really don’t know which one you’re watching anymore, as if it matters.

As for first-run movies, they all seem to be in their third or fourth run. Shrek, a rather inventive movie, turned into four movies, each less interesting than the one before, until that franchise had been drained dry. Matt Damon has joked that the next film in the series that made him a star will be The Bourne Redundancy, and now it seems the last bit of blood has finally been sucked out of the Twilight franchise. Yes, this has been going on forever – we’ve probably not seen the last of Rocky Balboa and there’ll probably be a ninth or tenth Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It happens. No one really knows what sells, so the studios green-light what’s sold before. As they say, better safe than sorry, and in a pinch you can always recycle old television series – the Dukes of Hazard or the A-Team, or earlier, Mel Brooks’ Get Smart and the Flintstones. Star Trek kept Paramount afloat for years. The many curious variations of the original television series, each with a new crew a slightly different monsters, and the many rather insipid feature films, kept the studio solvent. They knew what happened across town at Twentieth Century Fox. Back in the sixties Fox took a big risk on the most expensive film at the time, Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Surely that would astound people. No one was playing it safe there.

That was a disaster – Fox faced bankruptcy and had to sell off the back-lot to a group of developers led by Alcoa. That explains Century City out back behind the Fox studios, with all its fancy skyscrapers and the big mall with the ultra-high-end shops. Any studio executive driving home to Beverly Hills has to pass by Century City. It’s a reminder. No one really knows what sells – it’s a crap shoot. Play it safe. You’ll get rich enough.

Sometimes that doesn’t work either. Back in 1993, Warner Brothers gave us Grumpy Old Men – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had been wonderful in The Odd Couple many years before and this must have seemed like money in the bank. Just change the setting from Manhattan to a small town in Minnesota – no problem. But it didn’t really work. The film is quite forgettable – it hardly even ever pops up on basic cable these days. Watching grumpy old men, who are dead set in their ways, endlessly arguing with each other over things that really don’t matter in the slightest, does wear thin rather quickly. The screenplay was written by Mark Steven Johnson, not Neil Simon, and Johnson couldn’t breathe life into a corpse. It takes a special gift to make grumpy old men fascinating.

That seems to be the problem the Republican Party is facing too. It’s kind of a Hollywood marketing problem. How do you take what’s sold well before – grumpy and angry old men successfully convincing the nation that they too should be as angry as they are – and give it a new twist, making it utterly fascinating? The problem is reinvigorating the franchise – think Ronald Reagan the Sequel, or the Further Adventures of Barry Goldwater. It’s a matter of playing it safe – a matter of selling what you know has sold before – while at the same time making it seem fresh, even if it really isn’t. If that’s the case you’d better find yourself a damned good scriptwriter.

That’s a problem now:

What was supposed to be a make-nice meeting on Tuesday seemed only to make things more contentious between the White House and Senate Republicans over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s comments following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya … Rice came face to face with some of her harshest Republican critics, hoping to allay their concerns about whether she misled Americans regarding what precipitated the assault. President Obama has staunchly defended Rice and is said to be considering her for his next secretary of state, but the meeting apparently only served to deepen GOP skepticism. “Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).

Rice and Acting CIA Director Michael Morell met privately with Graham and Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who have been leading the GOP charge against the administration since the attack that led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Rice acknowledged that her initial description of the attacks had been mistaken, but the senators were most unhappy – you can see that in the video clip at the link, where they sputter in rage on camera – and Kevin Drum puts it nicely:

These people are just shameless. By this point, they know perfectly well that Rice never said anything deliberately misleading. On September 15 she passed along the unclassified assessment of the intelligence community as of September 15, and that’s it. But they just can’t stand to admit that they were wrong. It’s like watching a bunch of preening teenagers facing off in the schoolyard. It’s all just a big game to them.

That may be wrong. It’s more like Lindsey Graham and John McCain were doing Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1993 movie, grumpy old men, who are dead set in their ways, endlessly arguing over things that really don’t matter in the slightest – with an even worse script than in the movie.

It only gets stranger, as the day also brought us the new conservative fight to kill ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – a UN thing. We’re supposed to be mad at the UN again of course. We need to protect our sovereignty. We should sign onto nothing, and Ed Kilgore offers further perspective:

Anti-choicers and home-schoolers… have declared war on the convention on the theory that it confirms the “reproductive rights” of people with disabilities, and/or might confer other rights upon them that interfere with the absolute power of the family (presumably a servant-leader male-directed family) to raise children as they wish.

Are you angry yet? The angriest of those who vied with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, is, and his anger is explored by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank:

The former presidential candidate pronounced his “grave concerns” about the treaty, which forbids discrimination against people with AIDS, who are blind, who use wheelchairs and the like. “This is a direct assault on us,” he declared at a news conference….

[Mike] Lee, a tea party favorite, said he, too, has “grave concerns” about the document’s threat to American sovereignty. “I will do everything I can to block its ratification, and I have secured the signatures of 36 Republican senators, all of whom have joined with me saying that we will oppose any ratification of any treaty during this lame-duck session.”

They know this is a bad script, but they’re going with it anyway:

Lame or not, Santorum and Lee recognized that it looks bad to be disadvantaging the disabled in their quest for fair treatment. Santorum praised Lee for having “the courage to stand up on an issue that doesn’t look to be particularly popular to be opposed.”

That’s not going to fly:

The treaty requires virtually nothing of the United States. It essentially directs the other signatories to update their laws so that they more closely match the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even Lee thought it necessary to preface his opposition with the qualifier that “our concerns with this convention have nothing to do with any lack of concern for the rights of persons with disabilities.”

Their concerns, rather, came from the dark world of U.N. conspiracy theories. The opponents argue that the treaty, like most everything the United Nations does, undermines American sovereignty – in this case via a plot to keep Americans from home-schooling their children and making other decisions about their well-being.

This too was like watching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the 1993 movie, the one with all the charm drained away, and so Kilgore add this:

Santorum brought his famous daughter Bella, who suffers from a severe birth defect, to the hearing where he fought against acknowledgement of the rights of people like her. This is where the pretzel logic of the Right can lead.

Sometimes a sequel is a bad idea, as is trying to make grumpiness righteous, as we see in this report from Idaho:

A state senator from north-central Idaho is touting a scheme that’s been circulating on tea party blogs calling for states that supported Mitt Romney to refuse to participate in the Electoral College in a move backers believe would change the election result.

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, sent an article out on Twitter headed, “A ‘last chance’ to have Mitt Romney as President in January (it’s still not too late)….”

Nuxoll received her inspiration from an article by one Judson Phillips, and she ran with it:

The article, by Judson Phillips, a former Shelby County, Tenn., assistant district attorney and founder of Tea Party Nation, posits that if 17 of the 24 states that Romney carried refuse to participate in the Electoral College, the college would have no quorum, throwing the presidential pick to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

The problem with that, [Boise State University law professor] Adler said, is that it’s based on a misreading of the 12th Amendment, which notes when no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College, the decision moves to the House, where each state would have one vote and a quorum of two-thirds of the states would be required. “The two-thirds reference in the 12th Amendment is a reference not to the Electoral College but rather to the establishment of a quorum in the House of Representatives,” he said.

Oh well. Still, accepting Obama’s election does not necessarily mean you have to accept of the legitimacy of his administration, as Nuxoll explains:

She said, “I think it is very, very sad that we elected our current president, because he is definitely not following (the) Constitution. He is depriving us of our freedoms by all the agencies, and so … what I’m thinking is the states are going to have to stand up for our individual rights and for our collective rights.”

This is one bad movie, with many tedious scenes, like this one too:

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) told a radio host he completely agreed with her assertion that investigations are needed to determine why President Obama lost “every single one” of the states with photo identification requirements for voting, yet won re-election. Cuccinelli, who has lost most of the major legal cases he has brought since taking office in 2010, told the host she was “preaching to the choir.”

On WMAL radio, hosts Brian Wilson and Cheri Jacobus pressed Cuccinelli about why he has not opened a major investigation into what they suggested was wide-spread voter fraud in Virginia – an assessment they made based on receiving unproven allegations by email from listeners. Studies have shown Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud. Cuccinelli endorsed the idea of such investigations, but noted that he lacks the statutory authority to launch an investigation.

Ah yes, we’ve seen this before – grumpy old men arguing about nothing at all, and they’re grumpy old white men of course:

As House Democrats are proclaiming 2012 the year of the minority because for the first time white men will not make up the majority of their caucus when the new Congress assembles in January, Republicans have a long way to go to get to that point.

House Speaker John Boehner released the proposed recommendations for chairmen in 19 of the 21 House committees – powerful posts that set legislative agenda and priorities in respective issue areas – and there’s not one woman or minority on the list.

Damn. We’ve seen that exact same movie before. Don’t these guys know anything about marketing? Even the clueless studio heads out here know that if you’re going to make a sequel – and you don’t want it to go straight to DVD – you throw in a surprisingly strong woman, and a gay character, and some whip-smart and appealing minorities – and you find a script with something fresh, no matter how minor. People expect at least something new.

It seems they’re not going to get it, as all this is occurring in the context of all the back-and-forth about the upcoming fiscal cliff. Wikipedia has a complete and heavily footnoted and mind-numbingly detailed description of how this all came about – but it comes down to a series of chickens coming home to roost. The terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect – as you remember that included the spending cuts agreed upon as part of the debt ceiling deal from 2011, where the Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling, forcing the United States for the first time into default and declare itself bankrupt and stiff the Chinese and anyone else holding our bonds, unless Obama agreed to trillions in cuts to all social programs, dismantling everything done since FDR and so on. Obama said he’d agree to some cuts, but he wanted to go back to the previous tax rates to bring in a bit more money. The Republicans would have none of that. There was no way they’d agree to raise taxes a penny, and Obama’s idea that maybe just millionaires and billionaires could get back to the old tax rates was totally unacceptable – that was class warfare. Obama and John Boehner almost struck that deal, but the Tea Party folks in the House forced Boehner to abandon that, and finally Boehner wouldn’t even return Obama’s phone calls. There was no way out, but somehow everyone decided that the United States declaring bankruptcy and stiffing the world was a bad idea. The compromise was to allow Obama to raise the debt limit, for now, but also agree that on the first day of the next year there would be deep automatic cuts to everything, without exception – at least twenty percent, and that would even include the military. The Budget Control Act of 2011 stipulated that no one could call for any exceptions of any kind.

This was brutal and crude – draconian as they say – but no one took it seriously. The Democrats didn’t want every social and educational program crippled or destroyed, and surely the Republicans didn’t want the military eviscerated. The idea was that the prospect of such cuts would get each side to talk to the other side and work something out – no one wanted Armageddon on these matters. But it didn’t work out that way – no one really talked at all, except to endlessly sneer at each other, which is what one would expect in an election year. Thus we are at the edge of that cliff.

There’s more of course. Among the other laws set to sunset at midnight on December 31, 2012, are the end of last year’s temporary payroll tax cuts, so that’s a two percent increase for most workers, and there’s the end of certain tax breaks for businesses, stimulus stuff, and shifts in the alternative minimum tax that would take a larger bite in taxes from millions of folks. And there’s the big one, the expiration of the massive Bush tax cuts from 2001 and 2003, along with the beginning of taxes related to the new Affordable Care Act. There are a lot of chickens coming home to roost. We are at the edge of a cliff here. All these tax increases and spending cuts could easily drive the economy back into a recession, or worse. That might actually be likely. Of course the deficit, as a percentage of GDP, would be cut in half, as if that matters.

And that’s where it stands now. No one is budging and everyone is trying to seem reasonable, even though the grumpy old men aren’t very good at it. In exchange for asking millionaires and billionaires to go back to their normal tax rates, they’re calling for massive cuts to entitlements – cut Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare. We can’t afford such things. Minimize what we spend on those. That’s the conventional wisdom, but Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, points out that’s nuts:

In case it’s necessary to remind people, our economy plunged due to the collapse of a Wall Street fueled housing bubble. The loss of demand from the collapse of the housing bubble both led to a jump in the unemployment rate from which we have still not fully recovered and also the large deficits of the last five years.

Prior to collapse of the bubble, the budget deficits were quite modest. In 2007 the deficit was just 1.7 percent of GDP, a level that can be sustained indefinitely. Furthermore, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the deficits would remain small for the near future, with the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2011 projected to push the budget into surplus.

The problem is not what you think:

The reason that we suddenly got large deficits was the economic downturn which caused tax revenue to plummet and increased spending on programs like unemployment insurance. We also had temporary measures that included tax cuts like the payroll tax holiday and various spending programs that further raised the deficit.

However these stimulus measures were temporary and were quite explicitly designed to boost the economy. Had it not been for the downturn, they would not have occurred. There is very little by way of permanent changes from the pre-recession tax and spending policy that would raise the budget deficits from the low levels that had been projected in 2008. This means that the story of current deficits is the story of the collapsed housing bubble.

And that means there’s another way out of this:

In a sane world we might be looking to square the deck with the folks who brought us the bubble. One obvious way would be a modest financial speculation tax like the one that the UK has had in effect on stock transfers for centuries. A modest tax on trades of stock, options, credit default swaps and other derivative instruments could raise enormous amounts of money while barely affecting normal investors.

The Joint Tax Committee estimated that a 0.03 percent speculation tax proposed by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter Defazio would raise almost $40 billion a year. This bill would imply a tax of just $3 on $10,000 of trades. Since computerization has caused trading costs to plummet, this tax would just raise transaction costs back to where they were 10-15 years ago.

The big hit would be on the high speed traders and other fast turnover types who are flipping stock and other assets by the hour or even by the second. This trading is a drain on the economy and cutting it back would free up resources for productive activity.

Of course that’s not going happen, because of the grumpy old men calling for cutting Social Security and Medicare, many of whom were at the center of the housing crash. Now they want to cut retirees benefits, and he cites Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, arguing here about the need to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, which is rich:

The last time that Mr. Blankfein was very visible in policy debates he was desperately seeking a bailout for Goldman Sachs which was facing a bank run that pushed the company to the edge of bankruptcy. It was granted special protection from the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. This protection, coupled with tens of billions of dollars in loans at below market interest rates allowed Goldman Sachs to regain its health. Now its CEO wants to cut our Social Security.

And then there’s the former Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan:

More than anyone in the whole country, Greenspan deserves blame for the economic downturn. As the bubble was growing to ever more dangerous levels, Greenspan was cheering it on, insisting that there was no bubble, and that even if there was a housing bubble its collapse would pose no special problem for the economy.

In a sane world, Greenspan would be hiding away somewhere enjoying his high six-figure pension. But this isn’t a sane world, this is Washington.

He cites Greenspan telling us here that another recession would be a price worth paying – all the suffering would be worth it, if it led to cuts in Social Security and Medicare, which are terrible things for a government to provide – but that’s just two more grumpy old men talking trash.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. We’ve seen this movie before. They didn’t change a single thing in the sequel, and the script is still lame. It’s kind of like watching Rocky XXXIII – but no. It’s just a rerun of Grumpy Old Men on cable.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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