Drawing Lessons from Something or Other

Woody Allen keeps making films and many of them are not successful at all. He hit it out of the park with Manhattan and Annie Hall, and a few others, but many of his movies just went nowhere, or to basic cable. And maybe Woody Allen is an acquired taste – the nervous little Jewish man who whines, with startling insight, from Manhattan, mainly. One suspects he’s not big with NASCAR fans. One of his best films is Everyone Says I Love You – but you have to know a bit about the Marx Brothers and life on the Upper East Side to get it. A familiarity with the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin helps too. And Hooray for Captain Spaulding – an ensemble number sung in French at a New Years Eve party in Paris, with everyone at the party dressed as Groucho Marx – makes great sense in a way, or it’s just bewildering. Woody Allen can seem far beyond clever, or simply self-indulgent. One assumes he just doesn’t care either way. He just makes another movie. As he says – that’s what he does. There’s no grand plan.

But his recent Midnight in Paris is the biggest box-office success of his career, and still playing in theaters. How did that happen? It is a puzzle:

Allen is stumped by “Midnight’s” breakout success, but at least part of it can be chalked up to his palpable love for its setting. In a pronounced departure from Allen’s dialogue-driven style, the movie opens with a three-minute montage of exterior shots of Paris, a city symphony in miniature that serves as a preemptive rebuttal to its protagonist’s pervasive nostalgia.

A financially successful but creatively unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter, Owen Wilson’s Gil longs for the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and he gets it, courtesy of a mysterious car that appears each night at the stroke of 12 and spirits him off to the past. At first, Wilson is thunderstruck at the opportunity to swig cocktails with the Fitzgeralds while Cole Porter tickles the ivories and Josephine Baker shakes her tail feather. But through an artist’s model (Marion Cotillard) who herself yearns for the bygone era of the cancan and Toulouse-Lautrec, he realizes that a rosy view of the past is a chronic condition, one not even time travel can cure.

“People don’t want to be where they are at the moment,” Allen reflects. “All of us at the moment are in a bad time, because reality is a tough place to be in.”

Yes, reality is a tough place to be in, and Paris is a fine place, even now, when it’s no longer the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. It’ll do. And nostalgia has its limits. It’s too easy. And it’s stupid. And that’s the dilemma Woody Allen is constantly exploring. Yes, people don’t want to be where they are at the moment.

But that’s a given, and Europe will do nicely. For a time, Paris each December was wonderful. And Avignon is fine too, and Les Baux is spooky, and Saint-Rémy is serene, as is Lourmarin and Gordes, and Aix, and up north, Rouen is oddly pleasing. London in the June rain was superb. Of course some Americans visit the old country, Ireland, or whichever old country is appropriate – it’s that escape to the past. But in general, if you don’t want to be where you are at the moment you go to Europe. Many Americans do, and NASCAR fans go to Talladega. Of course the French neighbor across the courtyard here makes her living as a tour guide – every few weeks she meets another gaggle of elderly French folks, piles them in a bus, and then shows them Hollywood and Los Angeles. Everyone wants to be somewhere else. The most popular chewing gum in France is named Hollywood. Go figure.

We tend to think of Europe as that ideal Other Place. But of course Europe is a mess. There’s no point in deciding it’s wonderful. And the situation there is dire – the European Union, with its single currency, is seeing its interlocking economies falling apart, and that may bring down the world’s economy if that happens. Their banks are holding massive amounts of sovereign debt – Greek bonds, Italian bonds, Spanish bonds and so on – and Greece will certainly default on their debt leaving their bond holders, the major banks, with nothing. Italy may do the same, as may Spain – and more than a few others. And our banks hold positions with the major European banks, and everyone else has insured themselves against loss, should the worst happen, with credit default swaps and other forms of odd insurance, which itself is being sold as an investment, and which may – as was the case with AIG three years ago – turn out to be worthless. But the situation is fairly simple. The governments in question have run up massive debts they cannot possibly repay. The bonds they issued – lend us the money and we will pay you back one day, with interest – will be just pretty paper pretty soon. They now cannot pay anything much. And the underlying problem is that no one nation can simply print money to pay their debts, temporarily deflating their currency until things turn around, as it’s not their currency. It’s a group currency. So there are seventeen nations in the Euro Zone, each with complete and autonomous control over their fiscal policy, but with no possible monetary policy. Monetary policy is the province of the feckless European Central Bank, which generally does not much of anything. Add to this the only nation there that can easily service its debt is Germany, and they’d rather not bail out the other folks. And they don’t think that the European Central Bank should do so either, wasting everyone’s collective assets to bail out those odd nations to the south that were so foolish with their past spending. So things are at an impasse, with disaster looming.

Do you still think Europe is a fine place?

Of course the question is what we can all learn from this, and David Brooks offers this in his New York Times column:

Over the past few decades, several European nations, like Germany and the Netherlands, have played by the rules and practiced good governance. They have lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values. Now they are being brutally browbeaten for not wanting to bail out nations like Greece, Italy and Spain, which did not do these things, which instead borrowed huge amounts of money that they are choosing not to repay.

And Jonathan Chait characterizes this as the “familiar conservative morality tale, in which the European countries in trouble are paying the price for their slothful, profligate ways.”

But on the same editorial page there’s Paul Krugman:

How did things go so wrong? The answer you hear all the time is that the euro crisis was caused by fiscal irresponsibility. Turn on your TV and you’re very likely to find some pundit declaring that if America doesn’t slash spending we’ll end up like Greece. Greeeeeece!

But the truth is nearly the opposite. …

Only Greece ran large budget deficits during the good years; Spain actually had a surplus on the eve of the crisis.

And Chait notes that on his blog, Krugman also has this chart showing that Italy and Spain both had shrinking debts as a percentage of GDP in the dozen years before the crisis. Someone hasn’t thought this through, and Chait ads this:

This has been today’s edition of “The New York Times hosts economic debates between eminent economists and comic sociologists.”

Yes, Krugman is “the bearded man with the Nobel Prize in economics” – and the comic sociologist is Brooks.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, however, offers perspective:

In 2007, the BBC ran a story with the headline “Ireland: An EU Success Story.” But the point wasn’t simply that Ireland had done well. It was that Ireland had done well that their continued interest in the European Union served as a critical endorsement of the continent’s generational project.

And that wasn’t just the judgment of the Europeans. Ireland was touted here, too. Their low-tax, pro-business economic policies were considered a rare triumph for free market ideals in Europe. In October 2008, Sen. John McCain told conservative TV host Sean Hannity, “You’re going to go on my first overseas trip. And I think it might be to Ireland.”

Or consider this August Wall Street Journal article on Italy: “As fears mount that Italy could be sucked into the vortex of the euro-zone debt crisis, consider this: The country’s public finances are among the strongest in the European Union.” Yes, even now, Italy is running a primary surplus. They have made many mistakes in the past, but so have we, and we haven’t made the tough decisions to work our way back to a primary surplus yet. (Nor, I hasten to add, should we make our way back to a primary surplus yet.)

And now there is David Brooks, portraying the German position as this:

People who work hard and play by the rules should have a fair shot at prosperity. Money should go to people on the basis of merit and enterprise. Self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not.

Klein:

That’s about as black-and-white as it gets. But it only works if you think of the European debt crisis as a crisis of Greece, where the governance really was terrible, the economic institutions weak and the labor market coddled. It doesn’t work for Ireland. Or for Spain, which was running a budget surplus as recently as 2005. And is anyone in this conversation really pretending to have deep knowledge of the character of Portugal?

And as for Ireland, Klein adds this:

It’s not as if Ireland’s moral character weakened in 2007. Rather, a massive, international credit bubble collapsed – a bubble fueled in part by German banks – and a lot of countries got hit very hard.

So Klein tries to be fair about this:

That doesn’t make Germany wrong for refusing to bail out Italy. But it makes it wrong to think of this as some sort of pat morality play, where the Germans have done everything right and the Irish have done everything wrong.

Some of this is economic mismanagement, some of it is bad luck, some of it is America’s fault, some of it is the way different growth strategies interacted with this particular period in economic history, and some of it is the fact that no one would ever form the euro zone in the middle of a crisis like this one because it’s glaring flaws would be too apparent.

Teasing all that apart in order to assign blame is, in all but the most extreme cases (cough, Greece, cough), impossible.

Nostalgia is stupid, and Brooks’ conservative nostalgia – for the good old days of Horatio Alger, where people who work hard and play by the rules have a fair shot at prosperity, and money goes to people on the basis of merit and enterprise, and where self-control is rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence is not – is doubly stupid. It’s not that simple. But our screenwriter longed for the Paris of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, while the artist’s model yearned for the bygone era of the cancan and Toulouse-Lautrec. Everyone longs for something.

But Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog picks up on something else in this Horatio Alger stuff Brooks loves so much:

This is beyond saying, as Bill Clinton used to, that people who work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t get the shaft. This is defining us as specially moral and other people as less moral and less virtuous because, presumably, they think rewards should be apportioned at random, or through some other appalling, decadent formula. And this moral superiority of Americans and Germans is based on nationality.

And that is a problem:

This is creepy, and it’s also hypocritical – when it suits the arguments of Brooks and others like him, America isn’t a country with moral virtue, it’s a decadent cesspool full of flabby greedheads maxing out their credit cards and taking subprime loans. And the Germans are soft six-week-vacation-takers cosseted by a cradle-to-grave welfare state. But at this moment it suits Brooks to say that Angela Merkel and the people of her country are muscular strivers straight off a propaganda painting, which allows him to contrast them with the decadent lefties.

Ah, you know, hippies – those people who “undermined this country’s yeoman virtues” and all that. You have the admirable Germans and the hippies. Take your choice.

But the less flamboyant Matthew Yglesias is just puzzled:

What’s striking to me is this odd scenario in which conservatives have suddenly become big admirers of Northern European social democracies. Brooks gets gooey about how Germany and the Netherlands have “have played by the rules and practiced good governance … lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values.” That’s all totally true, whether or not you think it constitutes the key root of the crisis (compare Sweden to Finland and you’ll see it’s not). But note that for the United States to live within its means in the way that Germany and the Netherlands have would be to increase taxes, cut defense spending, institute health care price controls, and make social welfare benefits more generous.

Visit Paris, have a beer in Bavaria – ah, we should be more like the Europeans. But they’re all doing everything our conservatives hate:

It is, of course, American liberals who’ve spent years – decades, even! – talking admiringly about the northern European social model. And most of us still admire it. But what aspects of it do the American right admire? It doesn’t seem to be the budgetary priorities, so maybe it’s the way putting labor union representatives on corporate boards of directors seems to help inspire a less conflict-oriented approach to wage-setting? And where were these articles lauding.

Yes, he is being sarcastic, but he says he’s not really calling out hypocrisy:

Instead it goes back to the preference for morality tales. Whoever is up at the moment must be up because of their greater moral virtues. I seem to have somehow missed the conservative articles lauding Germany and the Netherlands from back four or five years ago. Instead at the time I was reading lots of stories about the triumph of the Celtic Tiger, the genius of the flat tax in the Baltic states, and articles praising Silvio Berlusconi and so forth. Certainly at no point during the Bush administration was there a lot of talk in the right-wing press about the evils of household debt, the overwhelming merits of current account surpluses, or any of the rest of it.

Yes, it’s all very puzzling. We turn to Europe when we don’t like where we are. People don’t want to be where they are at the moment. All of us at the moment are in a bad time, because reality is a tough place to be in. But it’s not like the Woody Allen movie. There is no magic car at midnight to take you to the Paris of your dreams. Woody Allen was poking gentle fun at the whole business. He should talk to David Brooks.

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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1 Response to Drawing Lessons from Something or Other

  1. Peter says:

    This is a great article. Very well articulated. The critique of David Brooks and his hypocritcal flowery oratory is exemplary. I watch him on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and there is something very untrustworthy about him; maybe that sly devious smile. Im not an expert on these things and maybe I don’t understand the intricacies of national and international economics well, but I sense one thing: banks and governments don’t care about the people. Banks just stright up wanna screw everyone in the ass, take all their money, and drown all in debt. No mercy. They don’t care if you’re rich or poor, have a family to feed, bills to pay, unfortunate natural circumstences or disabilities, etc, etc. If there was a market for it they’d make you sell you soul too. In line with Andrew Jackson’s thought, bankers are the devils (im atheist but have no better word) of the world. The gov’t, I won’t even bother to find some good that it may possibly serve. But, it’s the David Brooks of the world that are the most dangerous people of this earth. People with no principles, shifting their flag whichever way the wind blows, painting rosy and simple pictures of how things ‘really’ are.

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